Franchitti retirement may open a door for Sam Hornish Jr.
The circle of life in auto racing took yet another turn. After a horrific accident in Houston last month, Dario Franchitti announced on Thursday that he will no longer be able to get behind the wheel of a race car. Injuries to his head and spine convinced the four time former champion that it would be senseless to try and race again. Meanwhile, Sam Hornish Jr. (a three time former IndyCar champion in his own right) remains unemployed for next year despite sitting second in Nationwide points going into Homestead. With his options narrowing, the 34 year old driver may now have a chance that seemed impossible a day ago. If Ganassi calls, Hornish will have a difficult decision to make.
ABC News report on Dario's Houston crash
It would be irresponsible to go any further without congratulating Franchitti on the career he's had. The 40 year old Scot is one of the greatest drivers in the history of American open wheel racing. The numbers are staggering; in addition to those four series championships, Dario had 21 wins, 22 pole starts and 59 podium finishes in 151 IndyCar starts. He also had ten wins, 11 pole starts and 32 podium finishes in 114 CART races. Between the two series he's finished inside the top five in points eight times in 15 full time seasons, missing the top ten only once during those years. Had he not tried his hand at stock car racing in 2008, there's no doubt those numbers would be even higher.
Beyond the impressive numbers, Dario was a larger than life figure in the world of auto racing, as evidenced by the kind words coming in from every quarter after his retirement became public. AP's Jenna Fryer did a fantastic job in collecting a number of those responses in an article earlier today (click here to read the full article). The overwhelming theme was one of respect for the driver and sadness at his enforced retirement.
With that being said, his sudden departure leaves a gaping hole in Chip Ganassi's IndyCar lineup. Tony Kanaan is signed to join the team next year after a brief dalliance with Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide team. Scott Dixon will return as the defending series champion. Charlie Kimball will also be back after finishing one spot ahead of Franchitti in the final points standings in 2013. Dario was expected to anchor the fourth team and bounce back from a trouble-filled season that saw him land tenth in the final standings. Target is a Ganassi partner in both IndyCar and NASCAR; with the company backing a rookie for the NASCAR team, they were expecting results from a veteran on the open wheel side.
At the same time, one former champion is unsigned for 2014 and still trying to find a ride for next season. Sam Hornish Jr. left IndyCar to give stock car racing a go just like Franchitti did back in 2008. Unlike Dario, however, Sam was able to give NASCAR more than just a half-season's experiment. He had solid sponsorship through Penske Racing and spent his first three NASCAR years running for the team's Sprint Cup operation. He returned in 2012 to do it again after Penske cut ties with A.J. Allmendinger mid-season. Hornish was unable to replicate his IndyCar success on the Sprint Cup level and has focused his attention on the Nationwide level the past two seasons. He's seemingly turned a corner this year, winning one race and sits only eight points out of first place with one race to go.
Yet despite the recent success, Hornish's 2014 plans remain a mystery. A month ago, I took a longer look at the dilemma facing Hornish in his NASCAR career (Up or out: The dilemma facing Sam Hornish Jr.). The short version is that thanks to his prior struggles at the Sprint Cup level he wasn't on the short list for any of the major teams- and going from an elite Nationwide ride to a start and park Cup ride isn't that appealing either. Penske is ready to pull the plug on the Hornish experiment, replacing him in the Nationwide car with developmental driver Ryan Blaney- so staying put isn't an option either.
At the time, a return to open wheel racing seemed little more than a dream. The major players had already made their 2014 plans for the most part. Unless Hornish himself could find sponsorship there simply wasn't a seat at the table worthy of his past IndyCar exploits. Franchitti's retirement is a game-changer in that respect. Teammate Dixon won the series championship this past year so it's not as if the team is a back-marker. The long term relationship between sponsor and team owner also creates a level of stability that would be appealing to any number of drivers.
The most obvious option would be for Hornish to replace Dario in the Target-Ganassi car for next season. While there would undoubtedly be a re-adjustment period, Dario's seamless move from NASCAR to IndyCar shows that the transition can work for the right person. Yes, Hornish has been away from open wheel racing far longer than Dario was and the cars themselves have changed in the interim. But the basic principles of IndyCar remain the same. Dan Wheldon showed as much by winning the Indy 500 in a single-race effort before his tragic passing at Las Vegas that same year.
If Ganassi decides to go another direction, the driver who comes aboard will have to come from somewhere. There are only a handful of drivers out there who could even approach filling Dario's shoes and most of them have options of their own for 2014. Those options multiply when one considers that Target is already on-board as a sponsor, freeing up sponsor dollars that might otherwise have gone elsewhere. As long as the ride is a competitive one, Hornish would be in high demand as IndyCar's silly season kicks off. Andretti Autosport is particularly intriguing; the team had discussions about bringing Juan Pablo Montoya aboard before he signed with Penske and has had Kurt Busch test for them in the past. They've clearly thought about what would need to be done to support a stock car racer transitioning to IndyCar.
Sam Hornish GreenLight IndyCar replica
So far Hornish has said little about the possibility of returning to IndyCar in 2014. In the past, he's made it clear that he's committed to making things work in NASCAR- committed enough to spurn IndyCar to accept a demotion to NASCAR's minor leagues after his Sprint Cup run with Penske ended. Has two years toiling away at the Nationwide level with little hope of a Cup return changed his mind? Or did his part-time return in replacing Allmendinger remind Hornish of his ultimate prize? Only Sam can say for sure.
No matter who replaces Dario at Ganassi Racing, the pressure will be immense. Franchitti is a four time champion whose career was taken away from him prematurely. Target is one of the longer-term anchor sponsors in IndyCar racing and they've come to expect results from their driver. Off the track, Dario was a larger-than-life character for the series right down to his (soon-to-be-ex) wife Ashley Judd cheering on from the sidelines. That will be a tough act to follow no matter who the driver is or what they've done in the past.
The challenge will be even greater should Ganassi offer the ride to Hornish. Fans, teammates, and sponsors alike will be expecting to see the Sam Hornish Jr. of 2006 that won four of 14 races en route to a third championship. Anything less will be seen as a disappointment in some quarters... and Sam has likely had more than enough of having to live up to high expectations based on dissimilar past experience. Is the challenge of replacing a former rival cut down too soon really what he wants to take on at this point in his career?
Two things are for certain. One, Ganassi would be crazy if he didn't make the call. And Sam would be crazy if he didn't take it. It's a door he likely never expected to open- the question is whether he wants and is ready to walk through it.
Apparently Ganassi thought much the same thing. After learning that Franchitti would be forced to retire, his people reached out to Hornish to gauge his interest in returning to IndyCar racing. Hornish said that he was flattered by the offer but is not interested in accepting at this time. He didn't close the door entirely, saying that he would consider it if he had absolutely no other options and was out of time. Given Ganassi's need to find a driver acceptable to both team and sponsor, it's unlikely he's willing to wait out Sam's continued search for a competitive Sprint Cup or Nationwide car instead.