THE TWO sweat-soaked drivers stood 30 feet apart in the garage at Talladega Superspeedway on the evening of Friday, Oct. 5, each surrounded by television cameras and tape recorders. Never before in the 54-year history of the ARCA Re/Max Series had there been so much interest in a race. Then again, there had never been an ARCA event like the one at 'Dega, in which two future key players in the Cup series made their stock car debuts.
Neither Dario Franchitti nor Scott Speed was particularly impressive in the race—Franchitti finished 17th, while Speed was seventh—but that was not the point. This was all about seat time. Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar Series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, had turned only 30 laps in a stock car before, and his inexperience showed. Still, the 34-year-old Scot is the early favorite to be Cup rookie of the year next season, when he'll pilot the number 40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi and become the first European-born driver to compete full time in NASCAR history.
Franchitti's move to NASCAR is a blow to the struggling IndyCar series. He has as much star power as any driver on the circuit not named Danica, but his jump to stock cars is in line with a trend that has reshaped the U.S. motor sports landscape over the last decade. Along with Franchitti and Speed, who spent the past two years in F/1, Sam Hornish Jr. (a three-time IndyCar champ) and Jacques Villeneuve (the 1996 F/1 champ, who made his Cup debut on Sunday at Talladega, finishing 21st) are both considering driving stock cars full time in 2008.
"They are all great talents," says Jeff Gordon, "[but] it takes time to learn the tracks, the cars and the competition." Speed will compete in all of the ARCA races next season as well as in a handful of Busch Series events and likely be ready for a Cup ride with Red Bull Racing in '09.
Clearly the big winner at Talladega was Brian France, the chairman of NASCAR, whose pool of talented drivers just got deeper.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, October 15, 2007