Three Indianapolis 500 Winners to Chase Coca-Cola 600 Victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway
For the first time, the entry list for the May 25 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway includes three Indianapolis 500 winners.
Instead of trying to add a second likeness to Indy's Borg-Warner trophy, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend, chasing the trophy in one of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing's crown jewels.
The fact that three Indianapolis 500 winners plan to compete in the Coca-Cola 600 marks a motorsports transition as the two events are as different as night and day, literally and figuratively.
The Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 provide different types of racing, attract different types of fans and, until recently, their most common bond has been that they both run on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
Yet, more and more, another common thread has emerged-the same drivers running in both races during their careers.
We're not talking about "double duty"-running both races in the same day like John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon have attempted. We're talking about a migration of Indianapolis 500 winners taking their steering wheels to fulltime NASCAR rides.
There is a long history of open-wheel drivers taking a turn in the NASCAR ranks.
Former Indy stars Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt both won the Daytona 500 during their respective careers and current NASCAR star Tony Stewart won two Sprint Cup Series championships after claiming the Indy Racing League title.
But what was once a trickle of incoming talent, suddenly looks like a gushing waterfall.
In the past two seasons, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has seen the arrival of former Formula One star and 2000 Indy 500 champion Montoya, who joined Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates at the start of the 2007 season.
Ganassi then added to his open wheel-turned-NASCAR stable with the arrival of Franchitti, the reigning Indy 500 champion and last season's IndyCar Series champion. Hornish Jr., the 2006 Indy 500 winner and a three-time IndyCar Series champion, moved to NASCAR this year with team owner Roger Penske's organization.
While the Coca-Cola 600 will have a wealth of open-wheel drivers, it remains to be seen how soon one of the Indy 500 winners can translate their Memorial Day weekend victory into another at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"When I first started talking to Penske back in 2002, one of the side questions was, is there going to be an opportunity to run stock cars,"
said Hornish Jr. "Having the opportunity to run one or the other has always interested me, I'm a huge race fan. This is what was going to keep me motivated and push me. I feel that if I hadn't decided to do this, even though I'm only 28 years old, I don't know how much longer I wanted to race. I needed a new challenge."
For Franchitti, the move to NASCAR came at the same time he was considering ending his open-wheel career.
"It was a combination of factors," he said. "I was ready to retire from open-wheel racing. I always ask myself the question, 'Do I want to do this?' About half way through the IRL season, I asked myself that question and I wasn't sure I wanted to do this in '08.
"I was very interested in coming over to the NASCAR side. Chip (Ganassi) and I talked about me doing it. He called me in August about this idea, to come drive for (him) next year. It was just good timing."
In Montoya's case, he has found the challenge of NASCAR racing much more enticing.
"Racing is when you overtake someone on the track and race somebody, and you don't see that like you see it in NASCAR, anywhere. In NASCAR, we go from restrictor-plate racing, where you're four wide and bumping each other on the track, which is really cool, to learning to run close to the guy in front that is going to make him loose so you can get a run on the guy," explained Montoya.
Montoya has already experienced victory in NASCAR, winning on road courses in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series last season. He finished 20th in points in his inaugural Cup season, with a victory, three top-five and six top-10 finishes.
Hornish and Franchitti have struggled so far in their respective rookie seasons. Hornish started the year assured of making the season's first five races when Penske elected to move the 2007 owner points from Kurt Busch's car over to Hornish's No. 77.
Franchitti had to make races on speed. He managed to accomplish that without incident in the first six races, but failed to qualify for the April
6 race at Texas Motor Speedway. He was then temporarily sent to the sidelines after suffering a fractured ankle in the Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway.
One thing that both Franchitti and Hornish will have to adjust to this May is scheduling.
The Indy 500 and the preparation leading up to the race involves nearly the entire month of May in Indianapolis. This season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will have seen action at tracks in Richmond, Va., and Darlington, S.C., before arriving at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Even then Franchitti and Hornish Jr. will likely participate in the Sprint All-Star Race weekend festivities before getting in their cars for the Coca-Cola 600. Both, however, plan to keep an eye on the activities in Indianapolis this month.
"What I'm learning right now is I'm so focused on what's going on in Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series that I haven't really had time to cast my eye toward Indy," said Franchitti. "I'll be watching the race on TV, there is no doubt about that.
"Right now, I think IndyCar racing is in a very good position. The merger is really going to improve the series. They made the big first step and it's exciting times over there right now," Franchitti added.
With more race dates, less time between races and the extensive amount of testing-particularly for rookies-Franchitti has found an absence of "down time."
"We have been busy with testing all over," he said. "There really hasn't been a lot of time to relax, but I'm in that learning curve right now and I need to be in the car as much as possible."
The change in scenery will definitely be noticed by Hornish.
"I think I've spent the month of May in Indy for the past eight or nine years," he said. "We're definitely going to try get back and see some friends. I would definitely like to do the 'double' (both races on the same day) sometime, but the start times are so close together now it makes it pretty difficult.
"I'm pretty excited to have the chance to run the Coca-Cola 600 this year," Hornish continued. "I don't think anybody has ever won an Indy 500 and a Coca-Cola 600 and I like to do things that nobody else has done before."
Tickets for the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday evening, May 25, start at $39 and can be purchased online or by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS.