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
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
"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.
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.''