Baby steps for Franchitti, Speed; Villeneueve, Hornish not so lucky

10/6/2007 - NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Friday wasn't just a major racing adjustment for Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed.

Consider the culture shock for Speed, who was racing in Formula One this summer: From Monaco and the French Riviera to Talladega and the Redneck Riviera. A croissant to a corndog.

Day 1 of Sink-or-Swim Weekend came and went with the big-name open-wheelers holding their own, smiling a lot, and wondering a little what in the world they've gotten themselves into.

Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 champ, got his first racing action at NASCAR's biggest and scariest track with the ARCA event Friday afternoon.

Speed, the only American in Formula One until losing his ride earlier this season, also lost his stock-car virginity in Friday's show.

Franchitti had a decent debut with a 17th-place finish, but Speed had quite a day with an impressive seventh-place effort. That's two places better than his best F1 finish.

"This is so cool," Speed said, practically giddy over the experience. "I've never been able to go flat out all the way around the track for a whole race. It was super exciting out there. It was amazing."

Speed will run a full ARCA schedule in 2008 as preparation to a probable future in Nextel Cup.

Officially, Friday wasn't a NASCAR event. But it was NASCAR equipment at a place that has humbled many a talented racer over the years.

Franchitti, the 2007 IndyCar Series champ, had his up-and-down moments. He had to start in the back of the 41-car field after an engine change, but ran as high as eighth before falling back at the end.

"I'm relieved I didn't do anything stupid," Franchitti said. "I learned a ton today. I made a mess of that first pit stop and I made some mistakes drafting. It's really bizarre to bump somebody on purpose, but I started getting the hang of it after about 30 laps."

At least Franchitti and Speed opted to get high-speed drafting training in a feeder league rather than the main show.

Villeneuve, a former F1 champion, and Hornish, a three-time IndyCar Series champ, hope to make their Nextel Cup debut in the UAW-Ford 500 Sunday.

Hornish has some NASCAR experience in Busch races. Villeneuve competed in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Las Vegas but will make his Talladega racing debut in the truck event Saturday.

Any track time in actual racing action helps, but most of the Cup veterans believe a Cup debut at Dega is too much to ask for Villeneuve.

"They threw him in the fire," Kurt Busch said. "He's out there with the big boys now."

Other drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton among them -- have criticized NASCAR's decision to let Villeneuve race on Sunday. Villeneuve understands those feelings.

"They aren't saying I'm not qualified to race," Villeneuve said. "All they're saying is it's a little early. I would say the same thing in their shoes.

"You don't want any unknowns out there when you're running for a championship, but I always try to race intelligently. I'm not here to be a hero. All I want to do is start getting ready for Daytona next year."

I'm relieved I didn't do anything stupid. I learned a ton today.

-- Dario Franchitti

Villeneuve will race full time in Cup next season for Bill Davis Racing.

We won't know until Saturday whether he takes the green flag on Sunday. Both Villeneuve and Hornish have to earn one of eight available spots in qualifying.

They have a 50/50 shot. Sixteen drivers don't have a guaranteed spot.

Villeneuve was 24th in the final practice Friday, but an impressive third among the hopeful 16. He also was faster than both his teammates -- Dave Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield.

Hornish was 30th in Happy Hour and ninth among the drivers trying to get in the field.

Not good enough, but you can throw out those times. How a car races in a pack at Talladega has little correlation to how fast it runs all alone on the track in qualifying.

This is the third time Hornish has attempted to qualify for a Cup race. Team owner Roger Penske plans for Hornish to race Cup full time next season, but he wants him to get in a few Cup events this year.

Franchitti, who moves to Cup full time for Chip Ganassi next year, also may race a Cup event or two before the end of the year. He said he filled his notebook with new info Friday.

"At first I was drafting like an Indy car," Franchitti said. "But I learned it was more important who was pushing you from behind. I tried the high line and the low line, but I kept getting in the wrong line."

Speed learned a tough Talladega lesson when he went below the yellow line to make a pass and move up to third on Lap 50.

ARCA officials informed him he had to give the spot back, not easy to do when restrictor-plate racing. Getting off the throttle cost him 11 spots, but he gradually worked his way forward again.

For the record, Juan Pablo Montoya has bragging rights on both his open-wheel buddies. Montoya finished third in the ARCA race one year ago, which also was his Talladega debut.

But Friday was a big step for the new guys. As odd as it sounds, Talladega is Broadway for NASCAR.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

"At the end of the day, it's just a race car and we have to find a way to make it faster," Villeneuve said. "In F1, it's fun when you're running up front. The minute you're not, it's boring. NASCAR is fun all the time."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.