NASCAR 2008: Rookie Contenders

The 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series freshman class will have a decidedly open wheel racing feel to it.

After the much-heralded splash former Indy 500 winner and Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya made in 2007, a variety of former open wheel pilots will take their career to the stock car world next season.

Defending Indy Racing League champion and 2007 Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti leads the list of rookie candidates. Franchitti, who made a handful of stock cars starts including on the Busch Series and ARCA at the tail end of last season, will pilot the No. 40 Chip Ganassi Racing Target Dodge in 2008.

"We had conversations last year, and one of the options going into the 2008 season was NASCAR," Franchitti said. "Then with Juan coming along, it didn't work out. And looking back, I am really happy it didn't work out. To win the Indianapolis 500 this year, and then the open-wheel title in my last race, it was a great way to sign off.

"I had 10 really good years, and it was the perfect time to try a new challenge."

Another former winner of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" will also be part of the Sprint Cup campaign next year when Sam Hornish, Jr. joins Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman at Penske Racing.

The three-time IRL champ will be behind-the-wheel of a Penske No. 77 Dodge with sponsorship from Mobil 1.

"I feel like this is something that is a new and unique challenge for me," Hornish said. "It may or may not be the right way to look at it, but I feel like I accomplished just about everything in Indy cars. I got to do more than I ever thought I would."

With a transfer of points from Busch's No. 2 entry to Hornish, Jr.' start-up squad, the former open wheel star will not have the pressure of trying to qualify for the first five races of the season - including the all-important Daytona 500 - as he'll be guaranteed a starting spot.

Montoya won't be the only former Formula One driver on the series next year with the addition of Jacques Villeneuve to the series.

Another Indy 500 winner, Villeneuve will pilot Bill Davis Racing's No. 27 Toyota.

"Well, I think because NASCAR is becoming stronger and stronger every year," Villeneuve said about the influx of open wheel drivers. So it's getting everybody's attention even internationally. So I think that's what it comes down to. But a lot of people in Europe don't actually know what oval racing is all about so they will find out."

Also coming down from "The Great White North" will be fellow Canadian Patrick Carpentier, who replaces Scott Riggs in the Gillett-Evernham Motorsports No. 10 Dodge.

But not every rookie will come from an open wheel background next season. Regan Smith will get a chance to pilot the DEI No. 01 Chevrolet next season, hoping to work with veterans Mark Martin, Martin Truex, Jr. and Paul Menard.

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