Rivals-turned-friends Franchitti, Montoya deliver for owner Ganassi
Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya gave Ganassi another Cup-IndyCar sweep
In 1999, the two were both in CART, waging a tight battle for the championship
A stint as teammates in NASCAR helped turn the one-time rivals into friends
LEXINGTON, Ohio -- The careers -- and lives -- of Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya have been entwined since 1999 and both drivers scored memorable wins Sunday that were a testament to just how far these one-time rivals have come.
It was 1999 when CART was still in business and could still boast an outstanding series featuring exotic open-wheel race cars and talented drivers from around the world. Franchitti was driving for Team Kool Green and was locked in a heated points race with a rookie driver from Colombia driving for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. That driver was Montoya, who earned the notice of Formula One team owner Frank Williams. Without a seat open in F1 for the young, brash and talented South American, Williams sent him to the United States to run in CART for Ganassi.
It didn't take long for Montoya to become a winner in CART as he had an outstanding rookie season and challenged Franchitti for the title. He drove with fearless abandon and had a punkish attitude that often rubbed people the wrong way. Basically, Montoya was a competitor and didn't really care if people liked him or not.
Franchitti was far different.
The driver from Edinburgh, Scotland was handsome, charming, witty and articulate. He had just started dating one of Hollywood's hottest actresses -- Ashley Judd.
As the 1999 CART season championship became a tight, two-driver race between Montoya and Franchitti, the series stopped at Laguna Seca Raceway in early September. At a media luncheon, a reporter asked Franchitti about Montoya's stunning season and after about the sixth question about his rival, Franchitti finally said, "Perhaps you should be interviewing Juan and not me."
Their battle culminated in a near winner-take-all finale at what was then called California Speedway on October 31, 1999. It was a day that would forever change Franchitti, Montoya and CART.
Franchitti entered the race with the championship lead, but finished 10th, while Montoya finished in fourth. Both drivers were deadlocked with 212 points. The championship would be decided by tiebreaker based on who had the most victories. Montoya had a decisive 7-3 edge over Franchitti in that category and he won the title.
The disappointment of losing the championship paled in comparison to the bitter news that Franchitti was given after the race that fellow driver Greg Moore -- who Franchitti considered his best friend, and who had introduced him to Judd -- had died in a horrific crash on the ninth lap of the race.
The next night, Montoya was honored for his CART championship at the awards banquet in Beverly Hills. Franchitti arrived with Judd and after making eye contact, waved me over for a chat, introducing me to the woman who would become his wife. He told me that losing Moore was far greater than anything he had ever experienced and that losing the CART title to Montoya was the least of his concerns.
Montoya would remain in CART one more season and drove to victory in the 2000 Indianapolis 500, making it look easy as the only CART driver in a field of full-time Indy Racing League competitors. Montoya would leave after that season to race in Formula One for Williams, while Franchitti would remain in CART until Team Kool Green was purchased by driving legend Michael Andretti, who would switch sides and join what was still called the IRL in 2003.
In Formula One, Montoya was a fast driver but didn't fit into the F1 establishment. Midway through the 2006 season, he was fed up with the political infighting of Formula One and quit, landing a job with former owner Ganassi who shocked the racing world by bringing him to NASCAR. As a rookie in 2007, Montoya won a Sprint Cup race at Infineon Raceway. Meanwhile, Franchitti was becoming a star in IndyCar. He would win both the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship in 2007 with Andretti Autosport.
Just a few weeks after winning that title, Franchitti would sign with Ganassi in an attempt to follow Montoya's lead and compete in NASCAR.
Now, instead of fiercely competing against each other on the race track, Franchitti and Montoya were now teammates, sharing information and advice -- and actually becoming friends.
Franchitti's NASCAR career would come to an end over lack of sponsorship in 2008 but Ganassi brought him back to IndyCar in 2009 and Franchitti won his second series title. This year, he added his second Indianapolis 500 victory.
Montoya continued to search for his second Cup win, a breakthrough that came Sunday at Watkins Glen, where Montoya added a second series win on a road course. A few hours later, Franchitti would add a road win of his own, scoring a victory in the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio.
It was a day where these two former rivals could share in each other's victories, instead of feeling the sting they once felt when they raced against each other in CART.
"Before I got ready [Sunday] I was watching the Cup race and Juan was leading," Franchitti said. "Coming up on one of the restarts I was running third behind Tags [Alex Tagliani] and T.K. [Tony Kanaan], just about to go green and they came on the radio and said 'Montoya just won at The Glen so it's up to you now.' I thought, 'Oh, God -- no pressure now.'"
Franchitti held up his end of the bargain, giving team owner Chip Ganassi Cup and IndyCar series wins for the second straight time.
While Montoya remains largely out of contention for the Chase at 19th in the standings with four regular-season races to go, Franchitti's prospects are much better. His second win of the season allowed him to cut 20 points off Will Power's lead in the IndyCar standings to put him 41 points behind with five races remaining as he pusues a third title.
"We've got to put pressure on Will," Franchitti said. "At Watkins Glen, Toronto and Edmonton we finished on the podium every time but Will was always a place ahead. That wasn't in our plan; wasn't helping us win the championship.
"We're still a fair bit behind, but it's definitely doable. We'll keep fighting."
There was probably a time back in 1999 when a victory by Franchitti or Montoya would have not been widely celebrated by the other. But 11 years later, these two are more than just teammates.
Late in Sunday's IndyCar race, Team Penske's Power and Helio Castroneves were closing in on the much slower car of Milka Duno. While Power was able to get past Duno, Castroneves decided to take evasive action and drive down pit lane rather than push the issue with Duno.
Castroneves, after all, was placed on probation for the remainder of the season following his temper tantrum at Edmonton two weeks ago. Duno is also on probation for failing to meet minimum performance standards throughout the season, but was allowed to run the entire 85-lap race on Sunday.
Hmmm, I wonder if Castroneves and Duno have the same probation officer? Oh, that's right, it's Brian Barnhart, the IndyCar Series president of competition, who believes blocking has no place in the series. He took away an apparent victory by Castroneves two weeks ago for blocking the passing lane on the final restart and made his point clear once again at Mid-Ohio.
"It wasn't a tough call but knowing what is at stake at that stage of the race is what made it tough," Barnhart said. "As an official you don't want to be put in a position with three laps to go. What is interesting about that is when you watch other sports you hear these TV commentators say the referee didn't want to affect the outcome and that was a good no-call with five seconds left in the game.
"My perspective is that referee isn't doing his job then because if he has allowed one competitor to disadvantage another competitor in an unsportsmanlike fashion and he doesn't call it then he has affected the outcome. In my opinion, that is the wrong approach.
"If that call was made on Lap 32 we would be having this conversation."
Castroneves vowed he would be on his best behavior, but still doesn't understand the inconsistency with which the blocking penalties have been called.
"Unfortunately, it's not clear and at least I hope it is a positive situation regarding the wording and discretion of this rule," Castroneves said. "Today, I don't know what to do when I go out there and race. It happens all the time, don't get me wrong. Brian is the guy that sees the stuff that we don't see but this happens all the time and inconsistent calls have been happening. It's a very disappointing situation."
Castroneves is known to be an emotional person and said when he grabbed Charles Burns, the IndyCar director of security; he was simply, "adjusting his collar."
"I'm an emotional guy and express my feelings in a certain way," Castroneves said. "This happened to me at Detroit a few years ago and I was able to control my emotions. But this time I lost my control and I'm not pleased about that. I would never harm anybody. I was simply asking them to call Brian Barnhart in an emotional way. I knew they had nothing to do with the call but they had the power to call Brian Barnhart."
Castroneves was fined $60,000 for his actions. He met with IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard on August 2 and went into that meeting hoping he would overturn the result. Instead, he hit the pocketbook.
"I'm still paying my attorneys so $60,000 is a lot of money," Castroneves said, referring to his legal team from last year's tax evasion trial. "I'm ready to move on but it is a controversial situation."
Castroneves appears to be winning in the court of public opinion.
An eight-year-old girl handed Castroneves a note on Friday it read:
Dear Mr. H.,
I'm sorry about your win. I don't think you blocked that other driver.
"That says a lot right there," Castroneves said.
"I asked him when I was walking in here 'Do I need a dust pan and a broom to clean up your mess?' I've been wrecked by [Jimmie] Johnson quite a bit in the last couple seasons, the last 13 months, and whether it was racing or just a small bump that he didn't intend to do what he did. He didn't intentionally try and wreck us at Pocono, but it ended up that way. There might be some of that coming from my side of it. I may not intentionally try to wreck him, but we've got a high car count of wrecked cars over at our shop and those guys on the 48, and even Jeff Gordon, with what he did to us at Sonoma, it's been definitely a one-way street right now."
--NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch, on his run-ins with Johnson
"The guys at Hendrick are pretty boys and they get on People magazine covers and that's their job. My job is to go out and race cars and that's what I focus on."
-- Busch referring to the Hendrick Motorsports team, which includes Johnson.
While NASCAR heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's 400-mile contest, my mind will be on another Michigan team -- the Detroit Tigers, as they play the Chicago White Sox at The Cell Block in Chicago. Of course, anyone who has read this column by now realizes that I'm a White Sox fan and I'm hoping the South Siders turn the Tigers into pussycats on Sunday.
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