Franchitti's apparent defection latest coup for NASCAR

JOLIET, Ill. -- Dario Franchitti earned pole position for the Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway. But that wasn't why the IndyCar Series championship leader had the paddock buzzing.

After the third published report in the past week linking Franchitti to the No. 40 Chip Ganassi Racing Sprint Cup ride for 2008, IndyCar insiders were left wondering what would motivate the Indianapolis 500 winner (and potential IndyCar Series champion) to turn his back on Andretti Green Racing and one of the best seats in American open-wheel motorsports.

Not surprisingly, Chip Ganassi didn't want to talk about his future NASCAR lineup Saturday. Nor did Franchitti.

"I'm just focused on this weekend and trying to win the championship," Franchitti said after his 214.646-mph pole-winning lap. "I'm not thinking about, nor am I going to talk about, next year right now.

"I've got kind of a small brain, and it takes all my brainpower to focus on what's happening here."

Franchitti's apparent departure for stock cars is just the latest example of NASCAR's systematic cherry-picking of open-wheel racing's assets. Once the road to Indy racing, USAC sprint and midget competition is now NASCAR's chief training ground. Free-spending manufacturer Toyota pulled out of open-wheel in favor of stock cars, and Honda surely can't be far behind.

Remember when Champ Car fans were worried about Long Beach, Cleveland or Toronto becoming an IRL race? These days, NASCAR is much more likely to take over an event or market. In fact, it already has happened in Montreal.

And with most of the sponsorship dollars sucked out of the American open-wheel scene and directed toward NASCAR, international drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve and now Franchitti are finding stock cars can be a viable (and profitable) career option.

Look for Danica Patrick to make the move in 2009. If she wins Sunday's IndyCar Series finale, Patrick might have run her last open-wheel race.

After Franchitti's pair of spectacular flying accidents this year, his friends speculated that the 34-year-old Scotsman would quit open-wheelers at the end of the season whether he wins the IndyCar championship or not. Most observers believed he would switch to Andretti Green's factory Acura American Le Mans Series sports car team or perhaps run ALMS Porsches for Penske Racing.

I'm just focused on this weekend and trying to win the championship. I'm not thinking about, nor am I going to talk about, next year right now.

Dario Franchitti

The news that Franchitti might spend as many as 40 weekends a year racing stock cars shocked even his closest friends.

"I think he's going to make his decision pretty soon, and I will support him as a friend," Tony Kanaan remarked. "As a teammate, I'm going to miss him. We helped each other a lot in the past to move forward and make results for the team. It's going to be sad to see him leaving the team. Of the original organization of AGR, I'm the only one left.

"Obviously, Dario must have his reasons if that is happening," TK added. "I don't want to talk to him about it because I don't want to hear what I don't want to hear. I guess if he hasn't said anything, he has two reasons: One, we are worried about winning this [championship]. Or maybe he can't talk about it yet. I know he's going to tell me before you guys!"

2005 IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon reportedly lobbied hard to move to the stock car portion of Ganassi Racing's operations. But Wheldon said recently that Honda has asked him to remain in the Indy Racing League for at least one more year.

Wheldon said Saturday that he is not upset that his former teammate apparently has put a wheel under him in the race to NASCAR's riches.

"He's trying to put himself in a strong position to get a contract,"
Wheldon said. "He's riding a wave of luck right now. He's been very competitive all year, and I'm happy for him as a driver that he could do that.

"For me, personally, I've just been trying to get my season back on track and trying to finish as strongly as possible," the Englishman said. "I have some unfinished business here, I really do. I'd like to get the No. 10 guys a championship, and for me, personally, I'd like another Indianapolis 500."

On Saturday, Franchitti narrowly edged defending IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. (214.492 mph) for his third pole of the 2007 season. Hornish is yet another open-wheel ace tipped to switch to stock cars next year, with Penske Racing.

Championship contenders Kanaan (39 points back) and Scott Dixon (minus-3) qualified fourth and sixth, respectively.

"Our car was really good in race trim, and we're really happy about that," Dixon observed. "We just didn't pick up any speed when we went to qualifying trim, which is kind of strange."

Asked whether the talk about Franchitti going to NASCAR would be a distraction to his championship rival, Dixon said: "That's him, not me. So I have no idea."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.