Franchitti signs multiyear deal with Ganassi
CHARLOTTE, N.C. --With an Indianapolis 500 victory and the series championship, Dario Franchitti believed the time was right to walk away from open-wheel racing.
He'd flirted briefly with NASCAR last year, but a deal to move into stock cars fell apart when Juan Pablo Montoya snagged his ride. So when Chip Ganassi called again with a new opportunity, Franchitti could take it knowing he had nothing left to accomplish in the IndyCar Series.
"We had conversations last year, and one of the options going into the '07 season was NASCAR,'' Franchitti said in a Wednesday telephone interview. "Then with Juan coming along, it didn't work out. And looking back, I am really happy it didn't work out. To win the Indianapolis 500 this year, and then the open-wheel title in my last race, it was a great way to sign off.
"I had 10 really good years, and it was the perfect time to try a new challenge.''
He'll get that in NASCAR, where Franchitti becomes the latest open-wheel star to give stock cars a try. The Scot was introduced as the driver of Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge at a news conference at the team's Concord shop, becoming the first European to enter NASCAR full-time.
Franchitti will replace David Stremme at Ganassi, and join Montoya and Reed Sorenson on the three-car team. Had things played out a bit differently, Franchitti might already have a year of NASCAR under his belt.
Ganassi revealed Wednesday that he had been in discussions with Franchitti to drive the No. 42, but a deal fell apart when Montoya expressed interest in the ride. Montoya, who won the Indy 500 for Ganassi in 2000, was fed up with Formula One and interested in a change.
"Dario and I have been talking about this for a long, long time,'' Ganassi said. "I can finally tell that story now. Last year he and I had some extensive talks about NASCAR. I told him 'I'd like for you to drive for us.' He said 'OK, I'd like to drive for you. Let's do something.'
"I had the unenviable position to call him up a few days later and tell him, 'You know what? There is one guy on the planet that could have called and knocked you out of that seat and he and I had that conversation so that seat is no longer available.'''
Ganassi got another chance to sign Franchitti when sponsor Coors Light decided to end its longtime relationship with the No. 40. It left Ganassi without funding for Stremme, a young driver he likes but had difficulty securing new financing for.
Unable to exercise the option on Stremme's contract, he now had another open seat to offer Franchitti. The car owner said sponsorship for Franchitti is not an issue, but wouldn't reveal who will fund the car.
Not Just Another RookieDario Franchitti isn't the first open-wheel racer to decide to give cars with fenders a try. But he comes to NASCAR with an impressive 2007 under his belt as the defending IRL and Indy 500 champion.
Franchitti will make his stock car debut on Friday in the ARCA race at Talladega, the same event Montoya first raced. The rest of his schedule has yet to be set, but it's expected to mirror what Montoya did in ARCA and the Busch Series before he made his Nextel Cup debut in the season finale at Homestead.
For now, Franchitti is just anxious to get started. He has yet to even drive a stock car, and a brief seat fitting on Tuesday evening was his first time in the car. Montoya took him outside the shop on Wednesday to practice pit stops, the first of many lessons Franchitti expects to receive from the Colombian.
"I met Reed for the first time this morning, but I've known Juan for 15 years and I've already been asking him a whole lot of questions,'' Franchitti said. "I can relate better to him, and he's been really helpful already. He's been just great, and as my experience gets up a bit, the relationship between the three of us should only hopefully grow.''
Franchitti signed a multiyear deal to drive for Ganassi, and becomes the second reigning IndyCar champion to defect to NASCAR _ following Tony Stewart in 1998.
He said he and actress wife Ashley Judd are excited for the move, and aren't daunted by the intense 38-weekend schedule.
"The schedule is going to be interesting, and it's going to be tough, and it was one of the things that I really had to consider,'' he said. "Ashley and I talked a lot about it, and we decided that I'd do it and I am here to learn right now. But we certainly know we've got a long road ahead.''
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press