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More open-wheelers following Montoya's move to NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Tony Stewart opened the door for open-wheel drivers to race stock cars.

Juan Pablo Montoya kicked it in.

Montoya had one of the best rookie seasons in recent NASCAR history in 2007. He won a race, ran strong in several others and finished 20th in the Cup standings - better than most expected since he was making the difficult transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars.

In short, he set a new benchmark for others to follow.

There are plenty of followers, too.

Fellow open-wheel stars Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier are making the same jump to NASCAR's top series this season. And they are hoping for similar results.

'Juan ended up in the top 20 in points and was Rookie of the Year. If I could do that, that's plenty good for me,' Hornish said.

Although the influx of open-wheel drivers was met with some skepticism - defending Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, for one, said they made a mistake - other believe it will be good for the sport.

The additions could create more competition for open seats, expand fan base and maybe even boost television ratings.

'You have to look at it as a positive,' veteran driver Kyle Petty said. 'If you believe the propaganda that we are the greatest racing series in the world, then you would hope you would attract the greatest drivers.

'Having those guys come over here, you're attracting champions to the sport, not just drivers.'

It started with Montoya, a Colombian who won the 2000 Indianapolis 500, the 1999 CART Series championship and has seven Formula One victories. He moved to NASCAR's top series last year and managed six top-10 finishes.

'He's raised the bar for all newcomers,' Villeneuve said.

The newcomers have equally impressive resumes.

Franchitti is the defending Indy 500 winner and defending IndyCar Series champion. The 34-year-old Scot also has 10 CART victories.

Carpentier, a 36-year-old Canadian and CART's 1997 Rookie of the Year, won races in CART and Champ Car before moving to the IndyCar Series in 2005.

Villeneuve won the 1995 Indy 500, the 1995 CART championship and the 1997 Formula One title. The 36-year-old Canadian is one of three drivers to win the Indy 500 and win championships in Formula One and CART. Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi are the others.

Hornish is the lone American in the recent open-wheel invasion. He won three IndyCar championships and the 2006 Indy 500. He started considering the move a couple of years ago and eventually found spot with longtime open-wheel team owner Roger Penske.

Despite all their success, the newcomers have no illusions of what's in store when the season begins with next Sunday's Daytona 500.

'I'm looking at it as a learning experience,' Franchitti said. 'I came over here for that learning experience, as well as coming over here to be successful. But I didn't come in here thinking, 'Hey, I'm going to win, watch this.' I understood coming in how difficult this is going to be. I've prepared myself for that.'

Each of them has talked with Montoya about the transition, trying to get a feel for what to expect and hopefully glean something that will help them avoid a pitfall or two along the way.

'People don't appreciate how hard it is,' Montoya said. 'It's really hard. In F1, if you miss the boat, you're third or fourth and you really sucked that week. Here, if you miss the boat, you're 30th. You're either good or bad. In the middle, you're bad.'

Montoya said the biggest challenge is getting a feel for stock cars and learning how to relay problems to crew members. In open-wheel racing, not much gets tweaked aside from win adjustments and tire pressures.

In NASCAR, every little moving part can make a big difference.

That's the main reason Harvick said the open-wheel drivers 'went down the wrong road.'

'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,' Harvick said. 'They wouldn't be under such a microscope that they are now.

'It's just 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. So it's just a whole different world.'

Although their reasons for making the move differ - some pointed to the sport's popularity and others were eager for a new challenge - the four newcomers agree they could have longer careers in NASCAR because the cars are slower and safer.

'While the IndyCar series has done things to make the cars safer and safer throughout the years, there's nothing you're ever going to do to make up for being 50 miles per hour (faster) through the corner,' Hornish said. 'That's just how it is.'

More open-wheel drivers could be on the way, too, especially if any of the newcomers have the kind of success Montoya enjoyed in 2007.

'Since that barrier's been knocked down and that door has been opened, then that opens the door for other European drivers, Japanese drivers, who knows,' Petty said. 'It makes people in Europe look at this series and think, 'That's pretty cool.'