Thursday, February 14, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie drivers have two yellow, rectangular strips painted onto their back bumpers for all 36 races.

For years, the bright paint generally meant two things for opposing drivers: Be careful because they’re inexperienced and they’re American.

But as the series continues to reign supreme in this country and is trying to make marketing and broadcasting inroads globally, drivers from other forms of racing and other countries are becoming interested in NASCAR despite its grueling schedule, cutthroat competition and often difficult transition.

No longer does an aspiring Cup driver have to work his way through the Late Model ranks and Nationwide Series to reach the major leagues. Car owners have become willing to put up with the growing pains that an open-wheel driver goes through when coming to NASCAR.

Exhibits A-E are Juan Pablo Montoya, Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Jacques Villeneuve.

“I wish we could redefine the word ‘rookie’ when it comes to NASCAR because there aren’t any rookies anymore,” veteran Ryan Newman said. “The guys that are coming in now are far from rookies. Because they come from open-wheel, it doesn’t make a difference.”

Only Hornish is American-born — Carpentier and Villeneuve are Canadian, Montoya is from Colombia and Franchitti is Scottish.

Only Montoya isn’t a rookie — he was the guinea pig last year and finished 20th in points, winning at Sonoma.

None had driven a stock car before 2005 — all competed in CART/Champ Car or the Indy Racing League, and Montoya and Villeneuve drove in Formula One.

All have respected resumes — Villeneuve won the Formula One title, and all but Carpentier have won the Indianapolis 500.

In the previous 49 Daytona 500 races, only 16 foreign-born drivers competed and never more than two in a single year; on Sunday, four could help make up the 43-car field.

“In my mind, NASCAR is the best form of racing in the world,” two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “To see these guys commit to our sport, it says a lot about what we’re doing here and the level of competition we have.”

Because of 2007 owner’s points, Montoya, Hornish and Franchitti are in Sunday’s race. Carpentier and Villeneuve have to race their way in during today’s second 125-mile qualifying race. They start seventh and 11th, respectively.

“The job Juan did last year, that maybe opened the possibility up to other team owners who weren’t prepared to gamble before,” Franchitti said. “Now they’re thinking, ‘I’ve seen what Juan Pablo can do. Let’s take a chance here.’ ”

After being pursued for several years, Hornish and Franchitti decided to make the switch this year. Carpentier joined them after finishing second in a Nationwide event in his hometown of Montreal.

Among the rookie group, Villeneuve, 36, is the most accomplished. The Quebec native is one of only three drivers to win the F1 and CART titles and the Indianapolis 500 (joining Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi). But he drove for different F1 teams his last four years on the circuit and went winless his last nine years on the circuit after winning 11 races his first two years.

Franchitti drove for the powerful Andretti-Green Racing team in the Indy Racing League last year, winning the Indy 500 and the points title. But a year after nearly signing with Chip Ganassi to race NASCAR (Montoya signed instead), Franchitti made the switch.

“Now having driven these cars, I realize how difficult they are to drive, and that really puts their achievements into perspective,” Franchitti said. “The biggest challenge is finding the limits of the car and not overdriving or underdriving.”

Hornish was a semi-surprise because he grew up dreaming of driving Indy cars in general and Indy cars for Roger Penske in particular.

Hornish won three Indy Racing League championships and formed a great team with Helio Castroneves. But he didn’t want to play the “what if?” game years from now.

“I never had the kind of dream about winning it or winning Indy Car championships or even trying my hand with a completely different series,” Hornish said. “I got to a point in my career where I decided this was the next challenge.”

Carpentier had a nondescript career in open-wheel racing — his gig last year was in the Grand Am Rolex Series. But he has remained consistent during testing and practice at Daytona.

“With the races he ran last year and to get that experience, he’s really impressed me,” Johnson said.

Among the only naysayers in the garage is defending Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick.

“Those guys would be better off spending a year racing a Nationwide car or truck or something just to get used to the feel of the vehicle,” he said. “It’s going to take time to get used to everything and to really understand what the cars are all about and where the cars are going to go and react to them and things like that. It’s just a whole different world.”

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