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Published: Monday, 2/11/2008

Open-wheelers' invasion a boon to NASCAR

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
•Juan Pablo Montoya: Indy 500 champ, Formula One veteran
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•AJ Allmendinger: Champ Car 2004 rookie of the year, 5-time Champ Car race winner
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•Sam Hornish Jr.: 3-time IndyCar Series champion, Indy 500 champ
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•Dario Franchitti: IndyCar Series 2007 champion, Indy 500 champ
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•Patrick Carpentier: 1997 CART rookie of the year, Champ Car, CART race winner, IndyCar Series veteran
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•Jacques Villeneuve: 1995 CART champion, Indy 500 champ, 1997 Formula One champ •Juan Pablo Montoya: Indy 500 champ, Formula One veteran <br> •AJ Allmendinger: Champ Car 2004 rookie of the year, 5-time Champ Car race winner <br> •Sam Hornish Jr.: 3-time IndyCar Series champion, Indy 500 champ <br> •Dario Franchitti: IndyCar Series 2007 champion, Indy 500 champ <br> •Patrick Carpentier: 1997 CART rookie of the year, Champ Car, CART race winner, IndyCar Series veteran <br> •Jacques Villeneuve: 1995 CART champion, Indy 500 champ, 1997 Formula One champ
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The legend goes that American patriot Paul Revere rode through the countryside shouting "the British are coming, the British are coming" to warn folks about impending troop movements.

A movie from 1966 spoofed the Cold War by claiming "The Russians are Coming" after a Soviet submarine runs aground off a small New England town.

A similar call to arms might have been heard recently in the NASCAR garages, cautioning everyone that the open-wheelers are coming, the open-wheelers are coming.

Well, less than a week from the official start of the 2008 Sprint Cup Series season, the open-wheelers are here, and they intend to stay. They are here at Daytona International Speedway this week, seeking a place in stock car racing's Super Bowl, Sunday's Daytona 500.

Six drivers have recently defected from the open-wheel racing ranks to seek their fortunes in stock cars. They leave behind the sleek, rocket-shaped, 1,500-pound precision-tuned machines of IndyCar, Champ Car, CART and Formula One - and start bumping fenders in 3,500-pound stock cars.

<br>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>UPDATED</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SPORTS02" target="_blank "><b>MIS, Toledo Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway schedules</b></a>
<br>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.mispeedway.com/" target="_blank "><b>Michigan International Speedway</b></a>
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<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.nascar.com/" target="_blank "><b>NASCAR</b></a>
<br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>UPDATED</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SPORTS02" target="_blank "><b>MIS, Toledo Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway schedules</b></a> <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.mispeedway.com/" target="_blank "><b>Michigan International Speedway</b></a> <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.nascar.com/" target="_blank "><b>NASCAR</b></a>
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Last year brought Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger to stock cars. This year Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier have followed.

And these are not mediocre drivers desperately trying to hang on to fledgling careers.

"These guys come in with some very impressive credentials," said veteran Sprint Cup Series team owner Ray Evernham, who hired Carpentier to drive the No. 10 Valvoline Dodge for Gillett Evernham Motorsports. "These are all established, proven race car drivers, and champions. It's exciting to think about what they'll add to the stock car world."

The newest stock car converts have four Indianapolis 500 titles to their credit, a CART championship, a Formula One title, and four IndyCar Series championships. They have a long list of wins in open-wheel disciplines, including Carpentier's four victories on the Champ Car circuit.

"It is hard to believe that I'm here in Daytona," Carpentier said. "Not that long ago, I was digging holes on my farm in Canada and it looked like I was out of racing. Now I'm getting ready for the Daytona 500. It's amazing. Unbelievable. Now, like the rest of these guys, I just have to go out there and race."

The open-wheelers have flocked to America's most popular form of motorsports - the place where the money and recognition are much higher than in the IndyCar Series or elsewhere in the open-wheel ranks.

"There's probably different reasons for different guys, but I think they are all very competitive individuals, first and foremost," stock car veteran Kyle Petty said. "And this is an intensely competitive form of racing."

Another former open-wheeler, World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney, had the Daytona 500 pole for a while during yesterday's qualifying. Former Sprint Cup Series champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart both had solid backgrounds in open-wheel racing before pushing to the top of the stock car ranks, but the recent influx is significant.

"It's a trend," said team owner Chip Ganassi, who brought Montoya in last year, and wooed Franchitti over for this season. Montoya turned some heads by winning a Cup race and taking rookie of the year honors in 2007.

"He is a talent like few others," Ganassi said. "His performance last year is going to make it tough on these other guys."

NASCAR veteran Jeff Burton said the open-wheelers have been welcomed into the stock car ranks.

"I think it is important to have drivers from around the world that have a lot of different skill sets that bring energy to the sport," Burton said. "This sport is an open sport to anyone that has an opportunity and has proven that they can drive. They have as much right to be here as anybody."

Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup Series champion, said the mass migration of open-wheelers amounts to the highest form of flattery for the sport.

"I like seeing talented race car drivers from any form of racing, from any country, come in and bring the most talent into our series - and that's what I see we have this year," Gordon said. "I think it speaks volumes about our sport that these guys are taking that step to come over."

Hornish, the only three-time season champion in IndyCar Series history, said the open-wheel drivers have to start over, climb a steep learning curve, and tone down expectations.

"This is all very new and very different, so we can't come over to NASCAR and expect to be winning races and leading the pack right away," Hornish said. "We have to come in with realistic expectations. Over in IndyCar, nothing but first place would do, but we'll have to be happy with finishing 15th or 20th."

Regardless of how many times they might see Victory Lane this season, the consensus in the garages is that the open-wheelers will raise the competitive bar even higher.

"I think it's great that the open-wheel guys are coming," Evernham said. "There's some really talented guys."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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