Franchitti to NASCAR not an odd fit, it could be an obvious one


Congratulations, NASCAR Nation.

With today's confirmation that Dario Franchitti will drive Chip Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge in the 2008 Sprint Cup Series, you have successfully and officially seduced one of American open-wheel racing's few true bright lights.

Franchitti doesn't have Sam Hornish Jr.'s records or Paul Tracy's reputation, but he boasts an unexplainable star quality that few racers in any series are capable of pulling off.

Maybe it's his mixture of Italian and Scottish heritage. Maybe it's his taste for exotic toys ranging from a Ferrari to the helicopter he pilots himself. Maybe it's the fact that Ashley Judd married him when she was at the peak of her career and he was relatively unknown.

Wherever it comes from, Franchitti has the kind of charisma and charm you can't buy in any store. And now he's taking it to NASCAR.

It wasn't until 2007 that Dario finally pulled together the championship-winning season he was always capable of. Winning the Indianapolis 500 in the process only made the long wait more worthwhile.

At the same time, winning Indy and the IndyCar Series championship in one fell swoop meant that Franchitti had won pretty much everything worth winning in American open-wheel racing.

Hence a most unexpected career change at the age of 34. But one that had apparently been in the works for more than a year. It turns out that Franchitti started talking to Chip Ganassi last year about the NASCAR seat that went to Juan Pablo Montoya.

"I've really been intrigued by the challenge of NASCAR for quite a while and that was the overriding [factor]," Franchitti said at a North Carolina press conference announcing his arrival to the stock car world. "Winning the Indy 500 and the championship made the decision easier because I had achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was time to move on and jump into this new world for me.

"I had 11 great years in open-wheel racing and the time came for a new challenge. This is it."

He knows he has his work cut out for him. But there is reason to believe that Franchitti could be a better long-term prospect than Montoya, who won a road race and scored a pair of additional top-fives so far in his rookie Cup campaign in Ganassi's No. 42 car.

Dario's smooth and tidy driving style will help him conserve Goodyear's notoriously fragile tires, and he's highly skilled at getting exceptional fuel mileage. He's also a less abrasive personality than Montoya of Jacques Villeneuve, which will go down well with Cup regulars.

Franchitti also has prior sedan racing experience: Immediately prior to starting his American open-wheel career in the 1997 CART Indy car series, he ran two years in Germany's DTM road racing championship, winning a race as teammate to five-time DTM champion Bernd Schneider.

Ninety percent of his races in the IRL over the last five years have been on ovals, but Franchitti will still have a lot to learn about the intricacies of American stock car racing.

Yet that's part of the appeal.

"I just love the competition and just learning something completely different -- something that I really at this point have no clue about," he said. "I'm going from the position, along with Tony Kanaan, of kind of being a team leader to right now being a rookie.
It's going to be interesting.

"It's going to be tough. I'm under no illusions here. This is probably going to be the toughest challenge in my career. That's part of the reason why I did it. It's going to be a steep learning curve and I hope I'm up for the job."

Having lived near Nashville for the last few years, Franchitti is ideally based in the heart of stock car country. He'll be able to fly himself to about two-thirds of the 22 racetracks on the NASCAR schedule in an hour or less.

He laughed when one reporter joked about NASCAR's "12-month schedule."

"I was promised eleven months," Dario said with a smile. "Juan did this big, big sales job -- he said it's a lot of races and a busy schedule but you should do it."

In fact, it sounds like the only people not thrilled about Franchitti's impending NASCAR adventure are IRL officials -- and perhaps more importantly, Dario's wife.

"We were watching one of the races," he said. "And Ashley turned to me and said, 'Now that you're going to be doing this, do we have to watch it on TV quite as much?'"

Perhaps she'll find it all a bit more appealing in person.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.