New World Order

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A major change occurred to the American motorsports landscape this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Back in the pre-Atlanta times, there were two very distinct trains of thought at the top of the racing hierarchy - Stock cars or Indy Cars. That’s it.

For the most part, open wheel stars rose through the ranks, landed in either the IRL IndyCar Series or Champ Car World Series, and stayed there – with some working towards the top goal of getting a ride in Formula One.

Sure, there were a few open wheel stars who crossed over to the top level of stock car racing, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, but they were generally younger drivers who had some success – but weren’t superstars within their respective series (Casey Mears, Robby Gordon, John Andretti etc.). A few successful open wheel drivers like Adrian Fernandez, Scott Pruett and Paul Tracy tasted stock car competition, but walked away almost instantly with little success.

But now, all that has changed.

AJ Allmendinger, winner of five Champ Car events this year and runner up in the 2006 championship, as well as Sam Hornish Jr., the 2006 IRL IndyCar Series champion and leading winner in series history, have made their intentions known that they are heading towards NASCAR in the future.

Allmendinger will drive the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota Camry full time in the NEXTEL Cup next season while Hornish will drive at select Busch Series events in the No. 39 Mobil 1 Dodge both this season and next, with some expecting a full switch to stock car racing as early as 2008.

Hornish, a three-time champion in the IRL, saw the opportunity to drive stock cars as a chance to try something new now that he has accomplished many of the goals he had in open wheel competition.

"I grew up wanting to be an Indy car driver, but I have watched hundreds of NASCAR races," Hornish said. "I always thought that would be something I'd like to try. I feel like this is the right time in my career where I feel I have a great opportunity."

While Allmendinger agrees, he based his decision on more than just the new opportunity, and he saw the choice as a simple no brainer.

"I think it really comes down to that in NASCAR, whether it’s in Nextel Cup, or through the Busch ranks, or the Truck ranks, or even ARCA…there is just a lot more opportunity for drivers to get into a seat, make a living and get their name recognized," said Allmedinger, who understands fully what it is like to have few opportunities – having been fired by RuSport earlier this year prior to being picked up by Forsythe Championship Racing – the team he won all five races with.

"In open wheel racing, there are only 17 to 18 cars in each series and that is tough to get in there and get your name recognized and get a ride.

"For me this has just a crazy year in my life. I never expected to be sitting here in Atlanta right now talking to you guys about the new deal I just signed. When I was with RuSport I did not have that option. My contract was so locked down there was no way I was going to drive anything else. I’ve always wanted to attempt and see what it was like to drive these vehicles, but at the same point I just knew there was no chance I was ever going to get. But being let go I went out there and looked around. Honestly I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve learned so much from it. I’ve grown up from it. I think it has made me a better race car driver, in and out of the race car."

Of course, there is one more reason these two, and possibly many others, are looking towards NASCAR.

"I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that how strong NASCAR is and how popular and knowing that 43 teams are well-funded and you have job opportunities didn’t play into my decision making," admitted Allmedinger. "But ultimately that wasn’t the main reasons. That was one of the little reasons why."

Combine these two top drivers with Juan Pablo Montoya, who left Formula One’s Team McLaren Mercedes to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, and you are seeing a very unique trend in the post-Atlanta period:

All roads lead to NASCAR.

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