Commentary

Carpentier just latest open-wheel casualty in NASCAR

Consider the Great Open Wheel Experiment of 2008 a failure. Villeneuve, Franchitti and Carpentier arrived in NASCAR on a red carpet. They left in a whirlwind, writes Ryan McGee.

Updated: October 9, 2008, 4:12 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Sam Hornish Jr. and Patrick CarpentierAP Photo/Russ HamiltonPatrick Carpentier (10) and Sam Hornish Jr. got back to their open-wheel roots at Pocono.

The Great Open Wheel Experiment of 2008 went out with a whimper on Tuesday when the last man standing from the most-hyped rookie class in NASCAR Cup Series history was unceremoniously booted from his ride to make room for a 49-year-old stock car journeyman.

When Patrick Carpentier was cut loose from Gillett Evernham Motorsports and replaced with Mike Wallace, it signaled the last gasp for the United Nations of open-wheel stars who rolled into Daytona back in February.

True, the 37-year-old Montreal native was already a lame-duck driver with Reed Sorenson slated to move into the No. 10 Dodge in '09, but his DNQ-induced Talladega throwdown with a team executive got his name removed from over the door early.

Back in February, we did a hot lap through each member of the open-wheel invaders for ESPN the Magazine. So now, nearly eight months later, let's sift through the wreckage and see how they did.

Jacques Villeneuve
When it comes to résumés, perhaps no one has ever strolled into the NASCAR paddock with a list of accomplishments like this former CART/Indy 500/Formula One champion.

From the outset, his relationship with longtime Cup team owner Bill Davis was a disaster, due in no small part to the legendarily icy people skills of JV's business manager/buddy, Craig Pollock. Pollock's "you need us more than we need you" attitude didn't mix so well with Davis and his Batesville, Ark., trucking industry mentality.

By January, Pollock and Villeneuve had ended their longtime relationship, a move spurred by their inability to secure sponsorship for the ill-fated No. 27 car, which they'd promised Davis they would do. When the sponsorless Toyota Camry hit the track in Daytona it promptly hit the wall in the Gatorade 150s and -- boom! -- just like that it was over.

When I saw the former world champion carrying his own bags and trying to schmooze his way onto a flight out of Florida, I knew we'd never see him again.

Dario Franchitti
With all due respect to Villeneuve, his career highlights were becoming increasingly smaller in the rearview mirror. But Franchitti's greatest season came the year before he made the jump to stock cars, winning both the Indy 500 and the IRL championship in 2007.

So when the likeable Scot (and his even more likable wife) signed on with Chip Ganassi Racing, success seemed like an eventually inevitable conclusion.

Wrong.

He finished 32nd or worse in his five starts and then promptly DNQ'd at Texas right after his top-35 owners points parachute was taken away. Two weeks later, he broke his left ankle in a Nationwide Series race at Talladega and missed the next five weeks. He came back to run four races (41st, 43rd, 38th and a DNQ), then Ganassi disbanded the team due to a lack of sponsorship.

Other than that, everything went great.

[+] EnlargePatrick Carpentier
AP Photo/ Ryan Remiorz, CP, filePatrick Carpentier's rookie campaign with Gillett Evernham Motorsports ended abruptly this week.

Patrick Carpentier
In the open wheel and sports car worlds, Carpentier was loved for his heavy right foot and great sense of humor, but he was probably the member of this class that NASCAR-only fans knew the least about. So it came as a surprise to most stock car fans when the racer and his perpetual smile ended up becoming the most consistent member of this much ballyhooed group.

He was running up front in his Gatorade Duel until he was undone by a flat tire. Undeterred, he came back and became the first foreign-born driver to win a Cup Series pole in 55 years at New Hampshire in June.

The wheels started wobbling when it was announced that Sorenson would be in his car for '09. The first wheel came off when he DNQ'd at Bristol and the other three followed at Talladega, where he was unfairly ripped by team director (Evernham-speak for crew chief) Mike Shiplett. A DNQ at Dega is rarely if ever the driver's fault. At a restrictor-plate track you just flatten the throttle for two laps and whatever you get from the car is what you get. Shiplett's car didn't qualify and his driver took the fall.

Oddly enough, another hard-luck open wheel refugee has benefited from Carpentier's canning. AJ Allmendinger, who was bench by Red Bull Racing for Mike Skinner, then finally booted from his ride last month, will take over the No. 10 ride after Mike Wallace's turn at Charlotte.

Sam Hornish Jr.
The good news is that Hornish still has his job and, believe it or not, still has a chance to beat out Regan Smith for Rookie of the Year.

The bad news is that the career leader in nearly every significant IRL statistical category has had such a terrible season in the No. 77 Penske Racing Dodge that everyone has basically forgotten that he is racing. Heading into Charlotte, Hornish is ranked 35th in points, only one spot ahead of Allmendinger, who has started eight fewer races.

A shrewd car owner points swap by Roger Penske kept Hornish from starting the season with a ton of DNQs like his counterparts, but he did miss last weekend's race at Talladega. During his last two years in Indy cars, the pride of Defiance, Ohio, was dogged with persistent rumors that he was leaving for the bigger money and bigger headlines of NASCAR. Now he is dogged by rumors that he is going back to open wheel, chatter that has picked up steam since his Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, was indicted on some only-in-Hollywood gigantic tax-evasion charges.

"I've got a big commitment over here to both Roger and Mobil One for at least a couple of years," said the 29-year-old, who is certainly not the only driver to struggle in a Penske Dodge (paging Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch). "I'm planning on be here unless someone tells me otherwise, so we'll see what happens."

Yes, we will, as will the rest of the open wheel world. One year ago guys with funny names and mysterious passports were scrambling to trade in their roofless rides and try on something with a little more fender. Now that enthusiasm appears to have become tempered at best, even if the money is better.

No one likes watching their friends get embarrassed. The only thing worse would be to go through it themselves.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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