Franchitti's NASCAR departure bittersweet for impressionable Clauson

Updated: September 9, 2008

AP Photo/Greg McWilliams

Eric McClure (24) and Bryan Clauson (right) had a rough go of it in the March race at Atlanta.

Bryan Clauson enjoyed the opportunity to learn from Dario Franchitti -- not so much about racing stock cars, but about racing and life in general. So on one level, Franchitti's return to the IndyCar Series will leave a bit of a void for Chip Ganassi Racing's young developmental driver.

Rest assured, though, that the pluses of Franchitti's move clearly outweigh the negatives where Clauson is concerned. For one thing, Franchitti's still part of Ganassi's operation and is just a phone call away.

Mainly, though, the move could greatly aid the 19-year-old's on-track development. With Franchitti giving up his NASCAR pursuits, at least for the time being, the focus shifts toward getting Clauson as much experience as possible the rest of the season.

Including Richmond, which ended prematurely due to a blown engine, Clauson will drive the No. 40 Dodge in seven of the year's final eight races -- with Juan Pablo Montoya driving at Texas. All told, he'll run in 22 of the year's 35 races, not bad since sponsorship didn't materialize to allow him to run as many races with the No. 41 team as had initially been hoped.

After an impressive sixth-place finish in the opener at Daytona, one of four races with the No. 41, Clauson's top finish this year was a fifth at Kentucky in June. After that, though, he made just four starts until getting the news he'd be driving at Richmond.

Limited seat time is tough, especially for younger drivers trying to develop a feel for the sport. So the news he'll be in the car more often was well received, to say the least.

"That's really good, to kind of get six or seven races in a row here, and [to] kind of get in the seat regularly is going to be a big help, not only in our performance but building our team for next year and what we're going to try and do next year as far as running for points," said Clauson, who is slated to run for the championship in 2009, according to crew chief Brad Parrott. "We're real excited. It's a really good situation for me.

"It's tough to see Dario go. He was a great teammate and a great competitor and a great guy to work with and he taught me a lot, not only inside the race car but a lot outside the race car. [But] it's a great opportunity for me to get behind the wheel for six or seven more races and start building for next year and chasing down Landon [Cassill] for Raybestos Rookie of the Year."

Besides what he'll learn mentally, Clauson said the increased seat time will go a long way toward helping prepare him physically for next year.

"The more you run, the better you are physically. It's really hard to work out for this," Clauson said of driving the car for hours at a time. "You can run as much as you can, you can lift as much as you want, but getting in the race car and working those muscles that you can't find in the gym, it's really the only way to help yourself.

"I'm really excited about this. It's going to be a lot of fun and it'll help our team, not only to build chemistry but performance-wise, having the same guy in the seat, the same guys talking about the setups each week, asking for the same things is really big. Instead of having to bring one thing from one car and one setup for Dario one week, and coming back running with me the next was a completely different car, completely different setup. Going to Montreal with [Scott] Pruett and ever-changing, it's tough to really get where you kind of get a baseline. It's tough to do that with four or five different drivers."

That was the task faced by veteran crew chief Parrott, who welcomed the challenge. But he's also excited about getting a jump on what the team hopes will be a championship effort next season. That might seem like a lot to ask, but Parrott points out that Brad Keselowski ran a limited schedule last season and is now in the top three in the Nationwide Series standings in his first full season.

"I am 100 percent positive we have a team that's capable of winning the Nationwide championship. We just have to get Bryan a lot of laps at tracks he hasn't run … that's our next task," Parrott said. "Our plan right now is to run for the championship. … I have to work the cars around Bryan Clauson now. Before, I couldn't build a car for [Clauson's driving style] because I had different drivers in the car.

"Bryan's going to help us with that process, and we're going to make our cars better for him, and solely for him. And we're going to go and win races and get top-5s and top-10s and a lot of poles, for sure."

Mark Ashenfelter is an editor at ESPN. He can be reached at mark.ashenfelter@espn.com.

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