Former champions Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish have steadfastly defended their decisions to leave the Indy Racing League to begin NASCAR careers as absolute beginners. They've continued to do so as they've struggled mightily. ¶ But Tony Kanaan wonders about the decision of Franchitti, his best friend and former teammate. And Tim Cindric, president of the Penske race team, admits there are contingency plans that could bring Hornish, the 2006 series champion, back to an IRL series in which he set records for wins (19) and titles (3) before reunification created a new record book this season.
Kanaan said he knew a week before it became public in September that Franchitti would leave Andretti Green Racing to take over the No. 40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Sprint Cup series.
"It was a hard hit for me. He was my best friend," he said. "He was the guy that with (team owner) Michael (Andretti) made me come to this team. My wing man, the guy who we would be working together the whole time. It's the way it is."
Kanaan didn't begrudge Franchitti, but suggested the IRL — since enveloping several Champ Car teams and venues — might have been more attractive to his friend.
"The way open wheel was going at the time, it was the right choice," Kanaan said. "If you ask him right now if he thinks he made the right choice, he's probably wondering. … I don't see Dario regrets anything. He's very committed about the decisions he makes and he always presents himself well in anything he did. So … I can make fun of him now."
Though he said he wishes unification had happened five years ago, Franchitti insists he came to NASCAR for the challenge and the current state of open-wheel racing would not have affected his decision. Still, the 2007 series and Indianapolis 500 champion is laboring, 38th in Cup points, with a best finish of 32nd.
Lots of options
Hornish, too, is struggling in his rookie season after winning the IRL title and Indy 500 in 2006. Penske Racing assigned teammate Kurt Busch's points to his No. 77 Dodge to assure him entry into this year's first five Sprint Cup races, but he entered Sunday's event at Martinsville 35th in points, one spot from being forced to qualify on time. Cindric said he can foresee Hornish returning to the IRL, but not in failure, and Roger Penske said he feels Hornish has raced better than his results indicate.
"There's no set plan on that front, but we operate with a lot of options," he said of planning Hornish's career. "But I would be very surprised if the reason he came back (to the IRL) is because it didn't work out there. I know how determined he is. I'd be surprised, but you never know."
Denny Hamlin wouldn't have to worry about his mileage on those final restarts if he had fuel blend knobs like IndyCar drivers. And a button that automatically limited the car to pit road speed would be a benefit to any NASCAR driver.
Interesting notions, but unlikely scenarios — though it was intriguing to see Gary Nelson, NASCAR's former research and development center director and germinator of the "Car of Tomorrow," leaning against a wall inside the IRL inspection bay Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Nelson, now an independent contractor who still consults on engineering issues for NASCAR, was at the track because he also lists two Grand Am teams as clients. But he ambled to the other side of the garage to see what the more technologically daring do these days.
"This is how we got the wing for the COT," he said. "These guys have some good ideas over here."
Perhaps a push-to-pass button like the Champ Car teams used to have? Think of what that could do for racing at Talladega.
"Whoa," he said. "That kind of scares me."