Franchitti announced as Chip Ganassi's NASCAR driver

By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

CONCORD, North Carolina (Ticker) - Dario Franchitti had to wait an extra year to join Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR Nextel Cup team, but what happened to him in 2007 was well worth the wait.

The driver from Edinburgh, Scotland was set to take over the No. 42 Dodge for Ganassi beginning in 2007 but that was before he was bumped out of the ride by another famous open-wheel race driver.

“Dario and I have been talking about this for a long, long time,” Ganassi said. “I can finally tell that story now. Last year he and I had some extensive talks about NASCAR. I told him ‘I’d like for you to drive for us.’ He said ‘OK, I’d like to drive for you. Let’s do something.’

“I had the unenviable position to call him up a few days later and tell him, ‘You know what? There is one guy on the planet that could have called and knocked you out of that seat and he and I had that conversation so that seat is no longer available.’”

That one guy was Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner and seven-time Formula One race winner who became the first South American to join NASCAR full-time this season.

But Ganassi told Franchitti to keep thinking about it, that “you never know what may happen.”

“Things happen like that for a reason,” Ganassi said. “That’s all I could think about the day of the Indianapolis 500 when he won the Indy 500. I thought things happen for a reason. So he didn’t come to NASCAR this year, he stayed in the IRL, won the 500 and won the championship because we were a pint of fuel short on our team (with driver Scott Dixon).

“I figured I was a winner either way that day. I’m really excited to have Dario on our team.”

Franchitti signed a multi-year deal to drive the No. 40 Dodge Avenger beginning in 2008, replacing current driver David Stremme.

Franchitti is the first European driver in the 59-year history of NASCAR to join the series full-time. He becomes the second reigning year IndyCar champion to come to NASCAR, joining Tony Stewart who won the 1997 IndyCar title and split time in 1998 between NASCAR Busch and IndyCar before becoming a Cup rookie in 1999.

Franchitti has 180 starts between CART and IndyCar with 18 wins, 17 poles, 63 top-fives and 95 top-10 finishes.

But none were bigger than his victory in the 91st Indianapolis 500 on May 27 and his win at Chicagoland Speedway on September 9 which gave him his only IndyCar Series title.

“I’ve had 11 great years in open-wheel racing and the time came for a new challenge,” said Franchitti, whose contract was set to expire at Andretti Green Racing this year but was released on Tuesday night so he could compete in Friday’s ARCA race at Talladega in his stock car debut. “It’s going to be a heck of a challenge to learn everything. I have no experience and I will rely a lot on my new teammates. The ARCA car will be a big step.

“It will be difficult but a new challenge and that’s what I’m looking for. It’s going to be the toughest challenge of my career.”

Franchitti will not be defending his Indy 500 victory but said 2008 will be a learning experience in NASCAR.

“That was one of the hardest parts of making this decision,” Franchitti said. “As far as leaving IndyCar, I think the series is much bigger than any one driver and they have a lot of great drivers coming up over there to take my place. There are still a lot of great drivers there.”

Franchitti will drive on a blended schedule for the rest of this year with ARCA and Busch races to determine when to enter him for his first Nextel Cup race. But the plan is to have him in the 50th Daytona 500 next February.

Earlier this year after winning the Indianapolis 500, the IndyCar Series was beginning a long stretch of races Franchitti said he missed his weekends off at his Tennessee home with his wife, actress Ashley Judd.

Ironically, Franchitti is joining a series that starts around Valentine’s Day in February and ends just four days before Thanksgiving in November racing virtually every weekend.

“I realize the schedule is going to be busy and I’m totally prepared for that,” Franchitti said. “I spoke with Juan when Chip and I started talking. Juan did a big, big sales job. He said, ‘It’s going to be so much fun. There are a lot of races but it’s so much fun. You’re going to love it. You should really do it.’

“In hindsight, I’m not so sure because Juan said, ‘Everybody is really friendly. Kevin Harvick and I get along so good.’ Then I watched the Watkins Glen race and saw Juan and Kevin coming to blows. But I’m here for the long term and to do the job I’m here to do.”

Ironically, Franchitti and Montoya were involved in a tremendous points race in 1999 when both were in CART. Both drivers finished the season tied in points but Montoya won the title based on the tiebreaker of more victories.

It was a bitter defeat for Franchitti but his championship would come eight years later.

Now Ganassi has NASCAR’s first truly international team including Scotland’s Franchitti, Colombia’s Montoya and a Georgia country boy Reed Sorenson.

“People want to talk about me raiding the open-wheel series but that’s a swipe to NASCAR,” Ganassi said. “I don’t care where the drivers come from, when good drivers are available you have to look at them and take them. If a good driver becomes available you are doing your team an injustice by not taking a look at him.

“I’m not raiding IndyCar. Nobody is a bigger supporter of IndyCar racing than me. That series is continuing to grow and come back and do very well. But if there is a good driver available, I’m going to take a look at him.”

Franchitti admitted two of his wild rides at Michigan and Kentucky where he went airborne but was uninjured in crashes said it had a “small part of the decision” but that wasn’t the main factor.

“I’ve been intrigued by the challenge of NASCAR,” Franchitti said. “That was the over-riding decision and winning the Indy 500 and the championship made it easier because I had had wanted to achieve and it was time for me to move on.

“My mind was made up before then but it was icing on the cake to win the title and give something back to my guys at AGR.”

In doing so, Franchitti had to wait an extra year but by winning the Indy 500, his final IndyCar race and the championship all in the same season, it was well worth the wait.

“We won a lot of races but there wasn’t a 500 or a championship,” Franchitti said. “To get both of those was a nice feeling. I remember when Gil de Ferran won his last IndyCar race in 2003 and he retired after that, I thought that was really cool.

“I got to do that as well. And I’m much happier to leave with the record we had in 2007.”


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Updated Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007