AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Dillon Battistini reacts after he qualified on the pole Thursday for Friday's Freedom 100 Firestone Indy Lights race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Calling Brent Sherman
a pioneer is probably laying it on a little thick, but his career path is certainly the one less traveled these days.
Leaving NASCAR for the Indy Racing League? Yes, it does happen.
The Panther Racing Indy Lights driver, starting seventh in Friday's Firestone Freedom 100 (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
, the support race to the 92nd Indianapolis 500, is a newcomer to the IRL after five years on a stock car career course.
and Sam Hornish Jr.
made ballyhooed jumps from IndyCar racing to stock cars for this season, and with NASCAR's popularity of late, it's almost expected that more successful open-wheel drivers will follow. Speculation was renewed this week with the Los Angeles Times reporting that Helio Castroneves
was considering NASCAR for 2009 when his IndyCar contract ends after this season, though Castroneves said comments were taken out of context.
For Sherman, the opposite path was the smarter move to continue his racing life. Last year, he knocked around the NASCAR Nationwide Series, running 32 of 35 races with lesser teams with an average finish of 29.3 and no top-10s. He was going nowhere.
In the Firestone Indy Lights, he finished third in his very first start, at Homestead-Miami, and is eighth in points after four events.
"It was a pretty easy decision; it all came down to 'Where am I going to win races?' [Panther owner] John Barnes gave me an opportunity," said Sherman, a 34-year-old Minnesota native now living in Illinois. "It was the decision I think I had to make. You just get into a rut; it's easy to get in a rut in NASCAR if you're not with an established team and have been there for three, four years. I didn't want another unsuccessful season."
Sherman, who didn't start racing until after a six-year stint in the Air Force, drove full time in the ARCA series in 2003-04, finishing fourth and second in points to earn a ride in the then-Busch Series in 2005. He made six Cup starts for BAM Racing in 2006, with a high finish of 21st in the Daytona 500.
He never got traction within NASCAR, bouncing between a few teams and facing the same battles as other underfunded operations trying to compete against the big-money teams of the sport.
For 2008, Sherman said he had offers on the table to run the Craftsman Truck Series with respectable teams, but he opted to break his stock car racing ties and jump to the lighter cars and faster speeds of IndyCar.
"When I first went to Homestead, I thought 'there's no way this car can run through the corners that fast.' It's so nimble," Sherman said. "Understeer, oversteer
it's been exciting to learn an open-wheel car again. I had previous experience in open-wheel, but I'd never run anything with this much downforce."
While learning his new craft, Sherman has taken note of the former IndyCar Series' stars struggles in NASCAR.
"They're crazy," Sherman said. "To jump into the Nationwide Series or Nextel Cup Series with no experience in a stock car is very difficult to do. Those [stock car regulars] have been with their teams a long time. You think 'How hard is it? You run an oval, no shifting of the gears, it can't be that hard,' but all those guys are really talented drivers. To jump into the deep end right away, they have a huge learning curve.
"Being on the top somewhere doesn't mean you'll be on the top in another series."
Sherman is focused on full-time IndyCar Series racing down the road and could be in the right spot in the developmental driver program at Panther, the same team that gave an opportunity to a young Hornish in 2001.
"He's just beginning his journey," Barnes said. "He's incredibly hungry, very competitive."
Sherman would rather be a one-of-a-kind series jumper than start a trend -- "I hope I'm not creating more competition for myself," he said -- but is surprised not to see it happening more with the Indy Lights Series thriving. Twenty-seven cars are starting Friday, the most in the event's six years.
"There are so many guys out there [in NASCAR] that have a million bucks in sponsorship, even less, that could run a full season here, where instead they're just trying to scratch by doing a partial season, trying to get with a great team," Sherman said. "It's really not happening."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.