Blame it on JPM. He’s the one who made people think any driver with a reasonable amount of talent could jump into a stock car and succeed.
But if there’s one thing that’s become painfully obvious through the first five races, it’s that Juan Pablo Montoya is the exception and not the rule to open-wheelers moving into NASCAR.
Four top-notch drivers followed him this season, and have struggled mightily in one of the five biggest surprises so far this season.
Of course, Montoya warned often last season that Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villeneuve were not going to have an easy time wrestling the full-bodied 3,400 lb. machines.
Despite his decent results, he never shied away from admitting the switch to NASCAR was the hardest transition the former Formula One star had ever made.
The others have learned the hard way just how serious Montoya was.
“I didn’t expect it to be easy by any stretch, but it’s even more difficult than I thought,” said Franchitti, Montoya’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing.
The attention Montoya received last season while winning rookie of the year, a Cup race and a Nationwide race made the venture look promising for anyone seeking a fresh start away from fledgling open-wheel.
No one expected these newcomers to match Montoya’s success. Then again, no one expected them to struggle as much as they have, either.
Villeneuve’s venture didn’t make it past the season-opening Daytona 500. When the former F1 world champion failed to make the race, he hightailed it home to Montreal days before the event.
A lack of sponsorship pushed him out of the Bill Davis Racing ride he had planned to pilot, and the team has since ceased operations on the No. 27 Toyota.
Carpentier, another Canadian who raced in both Champ Cars and the Indy Racing League, has a solid team and sponsorship but can’t make races. He’s qualified for just two of five events so far, has a best finish of 35th in Atlanta and is 46th in the points standings.
Franchitti heads to Martinsville Speedway this weekend ranked 38th in points and in danger of not making the field for the first time this season. He started the year inside the top 35, thus guaranteed a starting position, but the field resets this week and he’s now on the outside looking in and needs a strong qualifying lap to make Sunday’s race.
Through five events, he’s finished 33rd three times and his best was a 32nd in California. It could be bad news for the reigning Indianapolis 500 and IRL champion, who doesn’t have full season sponsorship yet, and missing races would certainly curtail any potential suitors.
That makes Hornish the best of the group, and he’s clinging to 35th-place in the standings. The three-time IRL champion opened the season strong with a 15th-place run in Daytona.
But it’s been downhill from there, with a 25th in Atlanta his best showing since. Hornish said this season is a building year, and that NASCAR was a natural move because he had little left to accomplish in open wheel.
“I didn’t feel (open wheel) was challenging me enough,” he said.
“I knew how difficult this was going to be, and I knew I’d look back at my career and if I didn’t do this, I was going to wonder ‘Could you have made it and gotten to the point of being successful?’
“I knew it was going to be difficult, that’s why I did it.”