SONOMA, Calif. – Of the much ballyhooed class of open-wheel drivers who defected (or attempted to defect) to NASCAR over this past offseason, it's the one without an Indianapolis 500 win on his résumé who is showing the most promise.
Hearing the story of how Patrick Carpentier made it to the Sprint Cup Series, it makes perfect sense.
For two years Carpentier wanted to drive in the Sprint Cup Series. But for two years, there were no takers.
Sure, he and his manager Robert Desrosiers had banged on doors – just about every door in fact – hoping to get someone – anyone – to give Carpentier a chance. But this was in 2005, or two years before Juan Pablo Montoya's defection to NASCAR made open-wheel drivers a hot commodity.
"People told me a hundred times to stop, that it's never gonna happen," Desrosiers said Friday at Infineon Speedway, site of Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. "But I knew what I had and I believed in him."
Unfortunately, the decision makers inside the Cup garage were doubters. It wasn't that they thought Carpentier wasn't talented. He'd won five races in the CHAMP Car Series. But unlike Montoya – and Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish who followed, and Jacques Villeneuve who tried but never made it – Carpentier didn't have the cachet of being an Indianapolis 500 winner, and so the only way to change the decision makers' minds was to show them what he could do.
Brett Bodine, NASCAR's director of cost and research, told Carpentier that the best way to do that was to go to a race where you know the track, know the people and you think you can have a big impact. Bodine recommended Carpentier find a ride for last year's Nationwide race in Montreal.
It made perfect sense, really. The race was in his native Quebec, at a track he knew well and it was a road race, Carpentier's specialty.
Sill, he didn't want any part of it.
"I didn't want to do that, because if I did well people would say, 'Oooh, look at the road course guy,' " Carpentier, 36, explained. "I wanted to prove myself on the ovals."
But Bodine knew better. He told Carpentier that if he did well at Montreal, people would notice and then he might get his shot at the ovals. Still, Carpentier balked at the idea.
"No, no," Bodine told him. "Trust me."
Carpentier did, went to Montreal where he led a handful of laps, wound up second and probably could have won if he'd raced a little rougher with Kevin Harvick, who went on to win.
Two days later, Carpentier's phone rang. Gillett Evernham Motorsports wanted him to drive their No. 10 car at Watkins Glen the following Sunday.
It was another road race, but it was a Cup start. Carpentier had finally gotten his foot in the door.
It would take another month before GEM offered Carpentier a contract to drive the No. 10 car full time in 2008. But when it did, Carpentier was all in. He signed the contract immediately, then went full-bore into testing at oval after oval.
"I had never driven a sedan before, and to come right up to this level is a challenge," said Carpentier, who'd spent 13 years driving open-wheel cars. "The difference is night and day. … When you go into a corner in Indy cars, the back doesn't move because there's so much downforce. Here, you have a car that's two, three times as heavy that moves two, three times as much through the corners and you're still going close to 200 mph."
Carpentier's challenge this season has been to get a feel for finessing the throttle through the corners without losing track position (i.e. going too slow) or losing control (i.e. going too fast).
Going strictly by results, it would show that Carpentier is struggling. His best finish is 24th last weekend at Michigan.
But the fact that he's made 12 of the season's first 15 races is an accomplishment in and of itself. Whereas Hornish Jr. and Franchitti were locked into the first five races of the season, which allowed them to concentrate on racing rather than qualifying, Carpentier has had to earn his way into every race.
And if it weren't for a blown tire in his Daytona 500 qualifying heat – one where he ran near the front most of the race – and two rainouts that canceled qualifying, Carpentier would have qualified for every race.
In contrast, Villeneuve, who like Carpentier wasn't guaranteed a spot, failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and hasn't resurfaced since.
"His improvement is phenomenal," said GEM team manager Keith Barnwell, who doubles as Carpentier's spotter. "Everything to him is new, he accepts it, and he appreciates it, and I think that's the whole key. He appreciates someone helping him as opposed to a lot of the stock car guys here."
"He's got a ton of talent, and I like him," Tony Stewart said. "He's got open attitude about what's going on here and he doesn't have an ego. He's willing to listen to anybody that will offer advice, and that's always the best attitude to come here with.
"Obviously what he's done just getting into some of these races – being a go-or-go-home guy – has been impressive," he continued. "That talent's going to carry through to the racing, too."
Carpentier qualified 37th for Sunday's race. Though he wants to be known for his prowess on the ovals, this weekend is a prime opportunity for him to earn the first top-10 finish of his Cup career.
"So often you race and you forget to enjoy it," Carpentier said. "But every time I hear the national anthem, I'm amazed. I look up at all the people and think, 'I'm in the Sprint Cup Series.' So I'm just enjoying it."