At the mid-2000s peak of NASCAR’s popularity, top-ranked drivers from the world’s great racing series brought their towering reputations to the Cup Series. A few found success, a few more stuck around, but most of them left just as quickly as they arrived. This series tells the stories of NASCAR’s open-wheel invaders, driver by driver.
A Scotsman with an Italian name, Dario Franchitti began his racing career in the lower ranks of single-seater racing in his native United Kingdom. After a successful rookie season in British Formula 3 for Paul Stewart Racing (the team that would eventually enter Formula 1 as Stewart Grand Prix), Franchitti accepted an offer to join the Mercedes-Benz factory touring car team for 1995.
Across 1995 and 1996 Franchitti raced in the International Touring Car Championship, the final iteration of the original DTM. He won once each year and finished fifth and fourth in points, respectively, A great start, except there was a problem. The ITC series folded at the end of the season, and Mercedes needed somewhere to put Franchitti.
Enter the CART World Series. Franchitti returned to open-wheel racing for 1997, joining the Mercedes-powered Hogan Racing team. For the first time, Franchitti was driving an IndyCar.
Except, he also sort of wasn’t. From 1994 to 2008, IndyCar (all one word) was not the only Indy car (two words) series in North America, a period of time known as ‘the Split’. What essentially happened was that throughout the ’80s and ’90s, CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams, an entity led by Roger Penske) sanctioned the IndyCar series, but the United States Auto Club (USAC) still sanctioned the Indy 500.
In 1996, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George created the Indy Racing League, (IRL) an Indy car series designed to keep costs low and prioritize oval racing and American drivers, since CART had been trending international. While CART had the famous drivers, big teams, and faster cars, the Indy Racing League controlled the Indy 500, and used that power to restrict CART teams from making one-off attempts at the Brickyard through the highly controversial “25-and-8” rule, effectively cutting CART off from its own crown-jewel race.
So Dario Franchitti began his Indy car career in CART, and after a difficult rookie season he was snapped up by Team Green, for whom he would become one of the series’ top drivers. Franchitti won 10 times in the next four years, a stat even more impressive due to the fact that injuries suffered in a 2000 testing crash severely impacted his 2000 and 2001 seasons.
In 2003, CART really began to feel the effects of the Split. The series rebranded as Champ Car (a term for Indy cars that predates the Indy 500) but the top teams in Penske, Green, and Chip Ganassi Racing left for the IRL, taking most of their drivers, including Franchitti, with them.
Driving for the newly renamed Andretti Green Racing, after driver Michael Andretti bought a controlling stake in the team, Franchitti adjusted quickly to the IRL. In his first full-time season in 2004 (another injury disrupted 2003 for the Scotsman) Franchitti won twice and came sixth in the standings. In 2005 he won twice again, and in 2007 he won four races including the Indy 500, and the IRL series championship.
In early October 2007, the newly-crowned IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti announced he would be making the switch to stock cars, joining Chip Ganassi Racing to replace David Stremme as the driver of the No. 40 Dodge in the Cup Series.
The Associated Press quoted Franchitti as admitting he and Ganassi had talked about a switch in ‘07, but the deal fell apart when fellow open-wheel invader Juan Pablo Montoya got the No. 42 seat instead. With the deal, the Scotsman became the first European to attempt Cup Series racing full-time. But there were still a few hurdles left to clear.
Despite modest success in full-bodied touring cars, Franchitti had never driven a stock car. The No. 40 team had just lost its longtime sponsor, Coors Light. And to even make the announcement, Franchitti had just been through contract hell.
At the end of 2006, he had signed a one-year extension with Andretti Green that covered ’07, but Ganassi, Green’s bitter IRL rival, needed to put Franchitti in the lower NASCAR series ASAP to get him approved to run Daytona in February 2008. Green still had their driver under contract through the end of December.
Luckily, Andretti Green issued a 26-word press announcement in October releasing Franchitti from his contract early, leaving him free to join Ganassi. Dario ran a handful of races in ARCA, Trucks, and the Busch (now Xfinity) Series in the fall of ‘07 in preparation for the full-time switch in ‘08.
Two problems down, one to go: sponsorship for the No. 40. Ganassi thought dropping Stremme for Franchitti would be an easy sell. The charming Scot was the defending Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion, a handsome, worldly European married (at the time) to movie star Ashley Judd. It was late 2007: the economy was booming and NASCAR was the second-biggest sport in America.
So why couldn’t Ganassi find a backer?
Well, for one thing, “IndyCar champion” didn’t mean as much as it once did. The dueling Indy car series weakened each other, sending sponsors and fans over to NASCAR. By 2007, the Indy 500 only drew as many viewers as a regular Cup Series race, and the Brickyard 400 was a bigger deal than the 500. Another was that companies didn’t want to gamble on an entirely inexperienced driver. For all they knew, Franchitti could be an embarrassment. Some were starting to feel the economic pressure that would lead to the global financial crisis of 2008. Ganassi were lucky that Fastenal signed on to sponsor Franchitti’s part-time campaign in the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series.
Whatever the reason, Franchitti would enter the 2008 Daytona 500 in a Dodge Charger proudly advertising the new Dodge Journey in a single-race deal. Chip Ganassi planned to run the No. 40 team out of his own pocket until a sponsor could be found.
Then another problem reared its head: Dario Franchitti just could not drive a stock car.
In the first six races of 2008, Franchitti’s best finish was 22nd at Martinsville. That was his only finish inside the top-30. Next time out, he failed to qualify at Texas.
His Nationwide results were better, scoring sixth at Las Vegas and a pair of 11ths at Texas and Phoenix, but it all unwound at Talladega, when Franchitti blew a tire and was hit hard on the driver’s side by Larry Gunselman. Suffering a fractured ankle in the impact, Franchitti would sit out races with an injury for an unbelievable third time since 2000.
Franchitti returned to the Cup car at Pocono, where he promptly crashed out and finished 41st. After shockingly failing to qualify on the road course at Sonoma, the news came on the first of July. Ganassi was shutting down the No. 40 team, laying off 71 people and leaving Franchitti without a Cup ride for the remainder of 2008. He was 41st in the standings.
“NASCAR is where I want to be,” Franchitti told the Associated Press when the news broke, “I want to be successful here and I certainly don’t want it to end like this.”
Asked if he’d be willing to return to IndyCar, Franchitti said, “When I made the decision to come here, I wasn’t going to do the IndyCar thing anymore. . . that just wasn’t a direction I wanted to go in. Never say never, but it’s unlikely I’ll go back.”
Franchitti finished out the year in the Fastenal-sponsored Nationwide Series car, putting in his best performance at Watkins Glen, where he qualified on pole and finished fifth in a race won by fellow international road-course ace Marcos Ambrose.
In September, Ganassi announced that Dario Franchitti would be returning to IndyCar after all, competing behind the wheel of the fully-sponsored Target No. 10 as a teammate to Scott Dixon, who would win the Indy 500 and championship in Franchitti’s absence in 2008.
It was a reunion of sorts in multiple ways, as 2009 would be the first year that IndyCar could fully put the Split behind them: Champ Car and the IRL had merged earlier in 2008, meaning that Champ Car’s final scheduled race, the Nikon Indy 300 in Surfers Paradise, Australia, would be run as a non-points IRL exhibition in October.
Surfers Paradise would be Franchitti’s debut in the Ganassi No. 10 IndyCar. Thankfully, there were no contract disputes to speak of, since Chip Ganassi owned both teams, and Franchitti had lost none of his open-wheel talent. In his first race back, he finished fourth. In his fourth race back, he won the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
In the next three years, Franchitti absolutely dominated IndyCar, winning the championship three years in a row and the Indy 500 twice. He would win the 500 once more in 2012 despite struggling to adjust to the new Dallara chassis, before suffering career-ending injuries in a crash in Houston at the end of 2013.
After Franchitti retired, Chip Ganassi’s No. 10 IndyCar team would not win another championship until 2021, when Alex Palou became the first teammate to beat Scott Dixon in the points since Dario.
Palou is currently the center of a contract dispute between Chip Ganassi Racing and McLaren, with both teams claiming to have the Spanish driver under contract for 2023. McLaren has not announced yet if they plan to campaign Palou in IndyCar next year, leading to speculation that McLaren plans to trigger a break clause in Palou’s Ganassi contract that would allow him to leave if offered a drive in Formula 1.
The ongoing Palou drama is the inspiration for this piece: it bears some striking similarities to a conspiracy theory about Dario Franchitti’s time in NASCAR.
Although Franchitti has only ever claimed to have been honestly interested in a switch to stock cars, the theory goes that Franchitti was never a fan of the Andretti Green Racing team dynamic. Soon after Michael Andretti bought a controlling stake in the team, his son Marco had a headline-stealing rookie campaign in 2006, a year Franchitti went winless. After Andretti landed rising star Danica Patrick for 2007, the theory says Franchitti read the writing on the wall, saw he was going to be third priority, and wanted out. He then set his sights on Chip Ganassi Racing.
Despite the fact the Scotsman had only ever been to one NASCAR race, with Ganassi’s two seats taken up by Dixon and Franchitti’s friend and former teammate Dan Wheldon, and sponsor Target presumably unwilling to take on a third car for 2008, the conspiracy suggests Chip offered Franchitti the NASCAR drive to trigger an early break in his Andretti deal and keep him on ice until a seat opened up: much like the rumored McLaren offer that will give Palou a year in F1 before moving him to McLaren’s Schmidt-Petersen IndyCar team for the long term.
Neither Ganassi nor Franchitti has lent any credence to the conspiracy, and the official story remains that Franchitti was drawn back into IndyCar with the one-two punch of a championship-caliber seat and the tug on his heartstrings of attending the 2008 Indy 500 with his broken ankle in a boot.
Hell, maybe the whole thing was Chip’s plan all along.
No matter what the motivation, the story of Franchitti’s time in NASCAR represents the peak of the open-wheel invasion. To IndyCar fans, Franchitti is one of the all-time greats, the only man who could best Scott Dixon at the height of his power and an unstoppable force behind the wheel of the red No. 10. To NASCAR fans, Franchitti’s embarrassing career is proof that Cup Series drivers shouldn’t be underestimated, and that NASCAR is right to call it a world-class series with its drivers the best in the world.
Regardless, in this modern era where Jimmie Johnson drives an IndyCar, Marco Andretti leads the SRX standings and Kimi Raikkonen is about to jump in a Trackhouse Racing Camaro, it’s worth remembering just how difficult switching disciplines can be. It’s time go back and reconsider the careers of the open-wheel invaders.
Featured image sourced from Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Twitter