Franchitti back to IRL, ousts Wheldon

Not really intending this to be a news blog – that’s what the feeds on the right hand side of the page are for – but this one is significant enough to make a post:

Scottish driver Dario Franchitti will leave Nascar and return to IndyCar in 2009 to replace Englishman Dan Wheldon at Chip Ganassi Racing.

It’s a surprise, since Dario was saying he wanted to stick with NASCAR even after Ganassi shut down the Number 40 team as a result of being unable to find a long-term sponsor for that operation. But despite a few reasonably successful outings in the Nationwide series, the prospects of any real openings for him in the series were looking bleak.

Finally Ganassi has talked Dario back to where he belongs – open-wheel racing. Much has changed in the 12 months since Dario won the IRL championship, with the newly reunified series enjoying an upturn in support, sponsorship and fan attention: it looks a lot more appealing than the split and troubled open wheel scene he left behind.

The person really screwed by this announcement is Ganassi’s current driver Dan Wheldon. Wheldon’s had a couple of mediocre seasons, and his salary (after his title- and Indy 500 winning-season) is astronomical compared with the returns that Ganassi is getting. Small wonder then, that dropping Wheldon and fulfilling his promise to Franchitti is very appealing to Chip right now.

Where will Wheldon go? He’s probably out of luck. Most of the top IRL teams are sorted, and no one is going to pay him the kind of money he’s been getting. His window for F1 is long past, and no one’s knocking at his door from NASCAR. It’ll be a shame if he is without a drive in 2009, but that’s the tough world of motorsport: when you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re at the mercy of market forces.

UPDATE: And now we know where Wheldon’s going: he’s going back to Panther Racing, where he started in 2002 as the team’s test driver alongside eventual IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. He bumps Vitor Meira form the Number 4 car.

While Panther have been one of the leading challengers to the series’ dominant ‘big three’ Penske, Ganassi and AGR in recent years – and Meira has become the “nearly man” of the driver line-up – they have not won a race since Tomas Scheckter’s victory in 2005 at Texas. And they certainly don’t have anything like the budget to pay Wheldon the sort of money he’s been used to in IRL for the last five years.


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