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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Updated: September 12, 12:39 PM ET
American open-wheel racing braces for more defections

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Likely number of former Indianapolis 500 winners in the 2008 Daytona 500: four (Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villeneuve).

Likely number of former Indy 500 winners in the 2008 Indy 500: three (Helio Castroneves, Buddy Rice and Dan Wheldon).

These are not good days for open-wheel racing. The IndyCar Series probably will lose two more of its stars to NASCAR in Franchitti and Hornish.

So the last two IndyCar Series champions, and the last two Indy 500 winners, are moving on to Cup.

And Sebastien Bourdais, the man who probably will win his fourth consecutive Champ Car title, is moving to Formula One.

People are wondering why Franchitti, an open-wheel racer all his life and a man at the peak of his Indy-car career, would jump to NASCAR.

Lots of reasons: more money, more attention, a new challenge. But one reason stands far above the rest for the classy Scotsman -- safety.

It's really that simple. Driving a Cup car, especially the Car of Tomorrow that will race in every event next season, is much safer than racing an Indy car on high-speed ovals.

Franchitti had two scary accidents in back-to-back races this year when his car got airborne and became a 200-mph target of destruction.

Sources say famous wife Ashley Judd had seen enough. She didn't want her hubby taking those kinds of risks any longer.

NASCAR safety has made enormous strides since Dale Earnhardt's death six years ago. Ironically, the IRL was a big part of that in the development of the SAFER Barrier and the use of head-and-neck-restraints.

Ricky Rudd, who skipped the Richmond race with a separated shoulder, is the first Cup driver to miss an event because of an injury since Jerry Nadeau in 2003.

Nadeau's head injury came in a crash at Richmond before the SAFER Barrier was installed. Rudd hit the wall at California Speedway in a spot on the frontstretch where it didn't have the SAFER Barrier, something all NASCAR tracks should change.

But driving a car with sheet metal surrounding you at slower speeds is much safer than an Indy car on fast ovals.

Wheldon feeling snubbed?
You have to wonder how Dan Wheldon really feels right now.

Wheldon, the 2005 Indy 500 winner, all but begged team owner Chip Ganassi to let him move to Nextel Cup in 2008. But Ganassi said no three weeks ago.

He wanted Wheldon to stay in the IndyCar Series at least one more year, believing Wheldon can win his second championship in 2008. Now Ganassi is expected to sign Dario Franchitti to race in Cup next year.

Wheldon said all the right things at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, wishing Franchitti well. But he probably went to Ganassi behind closed doors and said, "Why him and not me?"

Wild COT debut at 'Dega?
Denny Hamlin seems convinced a heck of a show is coming with the first Car of Tomorrow race at Talladega next month.

"It should be way wilder than anything we've ever seen here," Hamlin said.

He might want to tone down that prediction just a tad, considering the wild nature of many restrictor-plate races at Talladega over the last 20 years.

Hamlin's comments came at the Talladega test session Monday. He made one other bold prediction.

"A guy with the worst car will be able to win," he said. "You could have slowest car in qualifying and be able to slingshot yourself to the lead with no problem."

Great news for Dale Jarrett.

Yates Racing jumps the gun
New rule: Don't hold a news conference for a major announcement at one of the biggest races of the year if it's not a done deal.

Robert Yates Racing announced a partnership with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing at Indianapolis two months ago, but the deal wasn't completed and the partnership didn't happen.

Now we have a new partnership for Yates Racing, the new team name with Robert retiring and son Doug taking over. They have a working agreement with Roush Fenway Racing.

And please don't call it a merger. It's just a plan to share a few things -- like employees, research info, parts, pieces, etc.

Roush Fenway Racing has found a way, with NASCAR's blessing, to get around the four-car limit. One Roush car will be sold to Yates in a couple of years, but remain part of the family, so to speak.

RFR already shipped a driver to Yates in Travis Kvapil, who will move from a Roush truck to the No. 88 Ford for the Yates Cup team.

RFR's marketing team will help Doug Yates find new sponsors. M&M Mars, which was sponsoring both Yates cars, is out. The Mars folks love Elliott Sadler, but Sadler said he doesn't expect them to sponsor his No. 19 Dodge next season.

F1 spy scandal heats up
Thursday in Paris is a day that could rock the Formula One world. The spying scandal comes to a boiling point when the World Motor Sport Council hears new evidence in the case.

The McLaren team escaped unscathed in July when a court ruled it did not use 780 pages of Ferrari documents to its advantage. But Ferrari and the FIA, F1's ruling body, are presenting new evidence Thursday that might prove differently.

If so, McLaren could be banned from the 2007 and 2008 championship. The McLaren team, which finished 1-2 at the Italian Grand Prix last weekend, has this season's driver and constructor titles all but sewed up.

"If you sit down and think about it, we could have what we've worked for taken away from us," McLaren rookie Lewis Hamilton told Britain's ITV network. "And when you really think about that, you think, 'Wow. I could be out of a job next weekend. Then what happens?'"

Good year for Danica
Danica Patrick finished a career-best seventh in the IndyCar standings in her first year at Andretti Green Racing. Not bad, not great. A more telling stat is how she finished compared to her AGR teammates.

Dario Franchitti won the title and Tony Kanaan was third. But Patrick did finish ahead of Marco Andretti, who learned the meaning of a sophomore slump by finishing 11th.

And if Patrick could figure out how to get in and out of the pits, she might actually win a race.

Hottest athlete? Ashley Force
Ashley Force
Force
The NHRA is trying to gain some added attention this fall with its new Countdown playoff system, but the driver getting the most attention isn't in the playoff.

Funny Car rookie Ashley Force was a surprising winner in the AOL poll for the "Hottest Athlete," easily defeating New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the final.

That earned her a spot on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Monday night.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.