Since witnessing the success of former CART Champion and Formula One ace Juan Pablo Montoya, the floodgates opened for fellow open-wheel experts to steer their way towards stock car racing. Attracted by the big bucks, fame and active schedule,...
Since witnessing the success of former CART Champion and Formula One ace Juan Pablo Montoya, the floodgates opened for fellow open-wheel experts to steer their way towards stock car racing. Attracted by the big bucks, fame and active schedule, world class drivers have found a new Mecca, in the ever-growing arena of NASCAR.
1997 Formula One Champion Jacques Villeneuve was one of the first to follow Montoya, inking a deal with Bill Davis Racing to compete in the 2008 Sprint Cup Series in a Toyota Camry. Reigning Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti was the next to make the move, revealing plans to drive the No. 40 Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge next season. And just three weeks ago, Gillett Evernham Motorsports announced that CART and IndyCar ace Patrick Carpentier will be its driver of the No. 10 Dodge next year.
All three were on hand at this week's NASCAR-sanctioned Car of Tomorrow test at Atlanta Motor Speedway, eager to get behind the wheel of the "new car" on a 1.5-mile oval.
Villeneuve, whose resume also includes an Indy 500 win and CART championship, made his Nextel Cup Series debut earlier this month at Talladega. The 36-year-old Quebec native qualified seventh and drove to a respectable 21st place finish. Running Craftsman Truck Series races for the rest of the season, Villeneuve was quick to compare the truck to the CoT.
"It's definitely a different beast than the truck to drive," he commented. "There's more speed down the straight. It corners [with] more speed and [you] have to slow down--The tires drop off quick quickly as well. So to get your best lap out, you really need to have to go out hard and try to figure out a lot of things at the same time. It's tough, but fun."
Franchitti made his Truck Series debut at Martinsville two weeks ago. That was followed up by a run in the Busch Series at Memphis. The 34-year-old Scot ran as high as 2nd before developing brake issues, dropping him to a 32nd place result.
"The thing I'm getting used to is fighting the limit of this car," noted Franchitti. "By following people around, I've actually managed to see exactly what they're doing in the car. You can see how a lot of the quick guys [cars] don't move around as much as [mine]. So the next project is to get used to that and start searching out the lane that works."
Only getting released from his IndyCar contract with Andretti Green Racing in early October, Franchitti hasn't had much time to come to grips with a 3400 lb stock car.
"I've kind of been thrown at the deep end coming here to one of the fastest mile and a half tracks having never driven a CoT or Cup car of any kind," he said. "So as I say, it's certainly been a learning experience."
Carpentier made his Busch Series debut in August at Montreal. In front of his home fans, the French Canadian started from pole and ended up finishing second. That result promoted team co-owner Ray Evernham to put him in the No. 10 Dodge for the following weekend's Nextel Cup race at Watkins Glen. Carpentier once again impressed, leading seven laps and finishing 20th. Despite racing with the CoT at The Glen, Carpentier got his first taste of the "new car" on an oval during the Atlanta test.
"The cars come up to the corners at tremendous speeds," Carpentier explained. "They've got no downforce and they weigh a ton. It's very hard. You're always moving sideways and pushing and trying to get the car in the right lane. And it's been a challenge. Yesterday morning when I got in it, the whole morning I thought, 'man, am I going to figure this out one of these days?' But the afternoon was a bit better and this morning is better again."
With the help of his teammates Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler, Carpentier said he's already learned a lot after one and a half days worth of testing.
"I got Kasey and Elliott to just keep coming to the car to talk to me and explain what to do with the throttle and different things," he added. "It really helps out quite a bit. So I'm quite a bit more comfortable. Not fully comfortable yet but it's a lot better than yesterday morning."
Making the decision to go Cup racing, all three drivers saw the success of Montoya's rookie season. The Columbian has claimed two career NASCAR wins -- one in the Busch Series at Mexico City -- and the other in Nextel Cup at Infineon Raceway.
"He's pretty much the reason we're all sitting here today," Carpentier said. "It was because he did so well this year."
"Juan Pablo had a great rookie season, without any [previous] stock car experience," stated Vileneuve. "After having driven one now, it's obvious to me how difficult a job it is and how good he's done."
Franchitti has the luxury of Montoya as a teammate and is hoping to learn off his successful transition to stock cars.
"Working in the team with Juan, you see how well he has adapted," he said. "It's been really helpful to have him on the team because I'm going through that same thing right now. Having driven the car now, you realize what an impressive job he has done."
A positive or negative fact is that drivers have to be fully committed to racing nearly every week. Formula One and IndyCar's seasons combined doesn't even equal the 38-race schedule Nextel Cup drivers endure.
"The schedule is demanding, obviously, but I don't think it's any worse than what I've been used to," Villeneuve said. "[In Formula One], there was less racing but a lot more testing. With overseas flights going to Australia and all that, it made it very difficult. So I don't see it as a negative. If anything, when you're in the car, you'd rather be racing than testing anyways."
"I won't see the kids and family as much, but it's such an unbelievable opportunity for me," Carpentier said. "I might travel with the motor coach from race to race when they're close together so we can visit the country at the same time."
Another open-wheel ace, 2006 IndyCar Champion Sam Hornish Jr., is also trying to break into NASCAR. However, he has yet to qualify for a Cup race after making repeated attempts during the season half of the season. Franchitti feels that adjusting to a new car is a challenge, no matter what racing discipline the driver comes from.
"I think if we take some of the best guys in the Cup and put them straight in an IndyCar and go try and qualify near the front, it's an adjustment," he said. "It's just so different and I can now see what Sam's up against. It's tough and for him it's going to be tough for us next year as well."
Carpentier will replace Scott Riggs for the final two Cup races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. However, with the No. 10 Dodge being outside the top 35 in owner's points, he'll face the same stumbling block Hornish has yet to break.
"It's going to be a very difficult for me going to Phoenix," he said. "We'll have to qualify the car and now I know what I'm going to be up against. We did a test in Kentucky and I thought it might not be too bad but coming to the track here it's a whole different animal-- I'm doing my fast lap in the fourth or fifth lap. But to do it on the first and second lap is a whole different story again."
As Villeneuve, Franchitti and Carpentier clock more testing miles and compete in select end-of-season races, their minds will be set making the most of their opportunities. A tough 2008 season is ahead for them but given the success of Montoya, these fellow open-wheel drivers could be the next stars of NASCAR.