Indy 500 winner switching to stock cars

Sep 9, 2007 - 5:06 AM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

JOLIET, Illinois (Ticker) - Chip Ganassi has pulled off another stunning move as the team owner appears to have lured Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.

Last year, Ganassi lured Juan Pablo Montoya away from Formula One and now it appears Franchitti is set to leave IndyCar.

Franchitti has an offer for a five-year deal. The driver from Edinburgh, Scotland enters Sunday's IndyCar Peak Antifreeze 300 with a three-point lead over New Zealand's Scott Dixon.

Franchitti, who won the pole Saturday evening, would not confirm the move and neither would Ganassi, but sources close to the two sides have indicated Canadian Club is ready to replace Coors Light as the sponsor for Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge in NASCAR.

David Stremme currently drives that car in Nextel Cup, but will leave the team at the end of this season.

Franchitti has a strong relationship with Canadian Club, which sponsors his car at Andretti Green Racing and was the sponsor's choice for the Ganassi NASCAR ride.

Once the details are finalized and the contract is signed, Franchitti is expected to compete in some lower division stock car races, such as ARCA and the Busch series as he prepares to be a Nextel Cup rookie in 2008.

Franchitti will join three-time IndyCar champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. as Nextel Cup rookies. Although Hornish and team owner Roger Penske have not made an announcement, that move also appears certain according to team sources.

The decision appears to have earned the blessing of Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd. The couple lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

"When the appropriate time comes, we'll make an announcement," Judd said after Saturday's qualifications.

Franchitti refused to discuss the move after his qualification attempt at the 1-1/2-mile Chicagoland Speedway.

"I'm just focused on trying to win this weekend and win the championship," said Franchitti on pit lane after his pole-winning qualification run. "I'm not thinking about, nor am I going to talk about, my decision for next year.

"I'm going to focus on this right now before talking about next year."

Danica Patrick is one of Franchitti's teammates at AGR and is stunned by the decision.

"I am shocked, knowing Dario and his style I'm surprised," Patrick said. "Good luck to him. He's a great driver and great drivers do great so he'll do fine. He's been doing pretty good all season and I don't think a little pressure hurt anybody.

"On some level this has to be a distraction but I don't think it will interfere with anything he does in the car on Sunday."

Mike Hull is the managing partner of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and was asked about the Franchitti's imminent move to the NASCAR team.

"I'll tell you what Mike Hull knows - nothing," Hull said. "Nothing shocks me any more but it's disappointing for me to see guys that are true IndyCar champions and Indy 500 champions go to NASCAR full time. It used to be when guys won the Indianapolis 500 they wanted to come back and win again.

"I think that should be a wakeup call to Brian Barnhart and all of his people to what we need to be doing here with partnerships and value back so that we can keep all of these guys in this series and promote the brand."

Hull said Franchitti's move to NASCAR would be different from Montoya's because Montoya was at an age where he would probably leave Formula One anyway.

"If he has a chance to run in the United States at that level of racing, why not?" Hull asked.

Ironically, Hull runs the program for the driver that is fighting Franchitti for the title Scott Dixon.

Wheldon also runs for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and expressed interest in driving NASCAR himself before the team owner told him he was remaining in IndyCar.

"I have some unfinished business to do," Wheldon said. "I thought this would be a good year to win another championship but that hasn't come to fruition. I also want to win another Indianapolis 500."

The big difference in Franchitti's situation compared to Wheldon's is that Franchitti's sponsor is joining the team and pushed for this move. That was also well before the Coors Light announcement that it would not be back with the No. 40 Dodge.

Also, Franchitti privately admits to being stung by some comments made by AGR team owners Michael Andretti and Kevin Savoree in recent weeks. Franchitti was made the scapegoat at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California for a late-race crash when he ran into Andretti's son, Marco, after a pit stop.

Marco Andretti was attempting to win his first race of the season while Franchitti was trying to win both the race and a championship.

It's also important to Franchitti that he be paid for what he believes he is worth relative to the other drivers in the series. That viewpoint hasn't always been shared by Savoree, according to sources.

Tony Kanaan is one of Franchitti's closest friends and will remain at AGR. He admits he is sad to see Franchitti leave.

"I'm sad," Kanaan said. "As a teammate I'm sad that I will miss him. As a friend I will support him in any choice that he makes in his career. It was time for him to make a change but we'll still be friends. He's been supportive and a big help to me moving this team forward.'

Kanaan was asked if he would show up at places like Talladega, Alabama to support his friend in NASCAR.

"I'll be there cheering for Dario, buy a hat with No. 40 on it," Kanaan said. "I think it will be fun to see him as Juan Pablo Montoya's teammate. I think that will be good."

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