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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Franchitti's fall shows talent is often not enough

Racing can be a humbling sport, and Dario Franchitti’s experience this year in NASCAR is the ultimate example.

Just last fall, less than one year ago, Franchitti won the Indy Racing League championship on the very last lap of the last race of the season. Shortly after claiming the title, the Indy 500 winner began his switch over to NASCAR to race in Cup for Chip Ganassi, where he would be driving the #40 car and be teammates with fellow open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

No one ever doubted Franchitti’s talent, but the question looming was how he would adjust to stock cars, which are a whole different breed of racing than Indycars. Also, a full-time sponsor never stepped up for the #40, raising concerns.

Now, 10 months after celebrating his IRL title, Franchitti experienced the opposite of the emotional spectrum Tuesday -- the embarrassment of seeing his entire team shut down, due to lack of results and lack of sponsorship.
“If I keep going, I run the risk of dragging the other two teams down. I don’t want to do that,” Ganassi told the Associated Press. “There’s no money. It makes no sense to be running this out of my pocket. I had to put a stop to it.”

The impact goes far beyond Franchitti’s ego. The entire No. 40 team was shut down, which resulted in 71 layoffs, the AP reported.
While it must help to have a lovely wife like Ashley Judd by his side to console him, Dario must be stinging after this announcement.

Franchitti has failed to qualify for races this season (not to mention the ones he missed after being injured in a Nationwide wreck), has only qualified in the top 20 twice all year, and has not finished any better than 22nd. Even on the rare occasions he was running strong, like this past weekend at Loudon, he ended up wrecking.

Why did it happen?

How does a driver who is clearly talented fail so miserably?

The simple answer is he was rushed into the Cup series. Franchitti only ran four Busch Series races last fall in preparation for this year’s Cup season, and it’s obvious now that he needed longer to adjust to stock cars and his learning curve wasn’t as quick as Ganassi might have hoped.

Also, going into a season without any primary sponsor guaranteed for the year is always risky. Less sponsorship means less money, which means often-subpar equipment.

It’s similar to what happened with Jacque Villeneuve, a former Formula 1 world champion whose dreams of NASCAR success didn’t pan out this year either. Villeneuve may be (and certainly was in his prime) a better race car driver than all 43 who will race this Saturday at Daytona. But he was driving an unsponsored Bill Davis car... translation: junk. I didn’t expect him to make the race at Daytona, and was not surprised when his trip to NASCAR-land ended abruptly.

And I’m not surprised by Franchitti’s downfall either. Juan Pablo Montoya is really the only open-wheeler who has taken well to the stock car switch, and even he is struggling this year. It’s a testament to how hard it really is to succeed in NASCAR, no matter what some elitist open-wheelers who look down on the sport may say.

Where does he go from here?

With sponsorship unlikely to come now that the team is shut down, Dario basically has three choices. He could wait for another Cup ride to open and wait for an offer, but that would be silly because the new team would likely be just as poorly funded and the results would be the same.

He could drive for Ganassi in the Nationwide car for the rest of the year, and that’s probably his best option if he wants to stick around NASCAR for a while. He can finally get the experience he never got prior to the start of this season. If he had done strictly Nationwide this season, with maybe a few Cup races sprinkled in, and then a full Cup season in 2010, maybe he wouldn’t be in his current predicament. If he can find a groove and get some good results in Nationwide races this year, maybe a sponsor will come along and he can return to Cup in 2010.

Third, he could go back to Indycar. The reigning champ would be welcome back with open arms, and he could probably snag a ride with a pretty good team. Problem is it’s already late in the season, so if he does give up on stock cars, he’d be smart to wait a few months and see who loses their ride at the end of the season. That way, he could be a chooser. Going in mid-season makes him a beggar.

Will Dario ever become a force in Cup? I hope so. I really like the guy, as he’s got a lot of personality and he’d be a great permanent addition to the garage … as would his wife, of course. But he’s going to have to take his time and find out whether he’s really cut out for stock cars.

I don’t doubt his talent, as he’s shown he can certainly succeed in Indycar ... but some guys are stock car drivers and some aren’t. Franchitti needs to figure out which group he falls in and go from there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are absolutely is an example of extreme talent not being enough to get a solid start, while you have some out there with hardly any talent hanging in the sport only because they can make a commercial,example Michael Waltrip what a joke! Meanwhile the racing continues to suffer. Dario and some of the other open wheel guys bring a refreshing look to Nascar, not to mention the professional way that they carry themselves. This is from a discouraged fan that has been following Nascar for thirty plus years.

July 2, 2008 at 7:49 PM 

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