Eating dust in NASCAR

by Gordon Kirby on 10th December 2012

I know NASCAR leaves many of you cold. You believe it’s a mere ‘show’, a subversion of motor sport’s true spirit.

Show or motor race, it’s hard to dispute Tony Stewart’s suggestion in the December issue of Motor Sport that it’s the world’s most competitive form of automobile racing. I’ve covered many forms of racing over the past 40 years and I’m an open-wheel road racer at heart, but I agree with Stewart. Forty-three cars covered by half a second says it all.

Another measure of the depth of NASCAR’s field is the long line of open-wheel drivers who have tried and failed, or done less than well in NASCAR. The list includes Juan-Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Pruett, Patrick Carpentier, AJ Allmendinger and Sam Hornish.

The most successful former open-wheel racer to make the move to NASCAR is Aussie Marcos Ambrose. Thirteen years ago, Ambrose won the British Formula Ford championship before becoming a two-time Aussie V8 champ. He tackled NASCAR in 2006, starting in the Truck series, then the second division Nationwide Series before making it into the Sprint Cup series on a full-time basis in 2009.

Ambrose went on to win three Nationwide road course races in a row at Watkins Glen between 2008-10 and one more road course race at Montreal in 2011. He joined Richard Petty’s Cup team in 2011 and scored his first and second Cup wins at the Glen the last two years but has yet to seriously challenge to win an oval race.

The most disappointing open-wheel driver to tackle NASCAR has been Juan Montoya. The Colombian showed plenty of promise when he forsook F1 near the end of 2006 to jump into NASCAR with Chip Ganassi’s team. He scored his first win on the Sears Point road course in 2007, but has been able to win only once again, at Watkins Glen in 2010. Montoya looked ready to score his first NASCAR oval win at Indianapolis in 2010 only to be penalised for speeding in the pitlane. Over the course of last year Ganassi’s team underwent a handful of key personnel changes and this past year has been disastrous as Montoya struggled in the mid or backfield most of the time.

Jacques Villeneuve tried his hand at Cup racing a few years ago without any success. He has focused the past three years on running the second division Nationwide races at Montreal and Elkhart Lake driving a Penske Racing entry. Jacques fought for the lead in most of these races but hasn’t been able to score his first NASCAR win.

After winning his first Indy 500 and IndyCar title in 2007 Dario Franchitti decided to give NASCAR a try in 2008 with Chip Ganassi’s team. Franchitti ran 10 Cup and 14 Nationwide races without much success and his season foundered after he broke his shoulder in a motorcycle accident. Dario happily returned to IndyCar in 2009 where he’s won two more Indy 500s and three championships.

Five-time Grand-Am champion Scott Pruett was one of the first of the modern generation of open-wheel racers to decide to try NASCAR back in 2000 after his IndyCar career came to an end. Pruett’s taken a couple of Nationwide poles and led some races but has never won in NASCAR. Christian Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Patrick Carpentier were equally unsuccessful in their respective flings with NASCAR.

AJ Allmendinger won five Champ Car races in 2006 before jumping to NASCAR with Red Bull. He drove for Red Bull’s NASCAR team for two years, then spent three years with Richard Petty’s team before joining Roger Penske’s Cup team last winter. Allmendinger’s career went astray when he failed a drug test this past summer and lost his job with Penske.

Sam Hornish won three IRL championships between 2001-06 and also won the Indy 500 in 2006 driving for Team Penske. ‘The Captain’ moved Hornish to NASCAR the following year but was disappointed by Hornish’s performances in Cup cars and demoted him to the Nationwide series. The past few years Hornish has focused on the second division series scoring his first NASCAR win in the Nationwide race at Phoenix in 2011. Sam continues next year in Penske’s Nationwide team.

Scott Speed and Danica Patrick have also tackled NASCAR with a conspicuous lack of any success. Patrick enjoys plenty of sponsorship and the best equipment and she will run the full Cup schedule next year with Tony Stewart’s team, but thus far she’s done no more than trail around near the back of the field.

In contrast, many years ago in 1967, Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500 in only his sixth NASCAR start while Dan Gurney won Riverside’s NASCAR road race five times between 1963-68. More recently, Al Unser Jr. threatened to win the 1992 Daytona 500 in the only NASCAR start of his career, but was crashed out by Dale Earnhardt Sr. while running fifth with 20 laps to go.

The message in all this is that there are more than a few accomplished open-wheel racers who could provide you chapter and verse about how NASCAR is a lot more difficult than some people imagine. You too should give it a little respect.

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