Flat tires everywhere

DEAN MCNULTY

, Last Updated: 7:34 AM ET

This was to be the season where the invasion of drivers from open wheel racing made its mark in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

In February, as the Daytona 500 dawned on the 2008 calendar, there were a half-dozen former race winners from either Champ Car, Indy Racing League or Formula One loading their resumes on to the NASCAR cash caravan.

Among the six, four -- Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti -- were Indianapolis 500 winners. The debate raged about which among them would be the first to crack the top 12 in the sport, claiming a spot in the Chase for the Championship.

Seven months later, Villeneuve and Franchitti are out of the sport, both victims of poor results and a crippled U.S. economy that has decimated the $15 million US sponsorship packages needed to compete in Cup racing.

Montoya, who set the bar for the rest of the open wheelers with a spectacular rookie season in 2007, is struggling in the No. 42 Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Dodge back in 21st place in the championship with just three top-10 finishes this season.

His big backer -- Texaco/ Havoline -- has announced it is taking its money out of the sport at the end of 2008.

A.J. Allmendinger's future is just as precarious as the No. 84 Red Bull Toyota squad has left him dangling in the wind about his contract status for 2009 while paving the way for the aptly named Scott Speed to take that seat next season.

Over at Penske Racing, it was presumed that Hornish's future would be secure, but if the No. 77 Dodge team misses out on finishing in the top 35, it will be an uphill battle to make the first five races in 2009. Currently, Hornish sits in 33rd position with only a razor thin 36-point lead on the 35th and final spot.

And the story of Canada's Patrick Carpentier is well- known.

He came into the season behind the 8-ball without a points cushion to protect him. Yet, in every race where he had the opportunity to qualifying on speed, Carpentier missed only two (and one was due to a blown tire at Daytona).

The 37-year-old also won a pole at New Hampshire and has steadily improved his finishes in the final third of the season. But, again, sponsorship, or in his case the lack of it, will force him to the sidelines as his No. 10 Gillett Evernham Motorsports Dodge team has already signed 22-year-old American Reed Sorenson.

Not a pretty picture for a year that started out with such promise for the open wheel invaders.

FINISH LINES

Formula One defending champion Kimi Raikkonen finds himself not only behind current points leader McLaren's Lewis Hamiton, but also behind is Ferarri teammate Filipe Massa. Raikkonen is banking on a good result at Belgium this weekend to get him back in the chase. "I usually obtain a good result at Spa and I need it more than ever after the results of the last (few) races," he said. ... Penske racing announced yesterday that David Stremme will replace Ryan Newman in the No. 12 Dodge next year. The 31-year-old Stremme is currently a test driver for Penske in the Sprint Cup series. ... NASCAR and track officials at Richmond International Raceway are keeping an eye on tropical storm Hanna as it makes its way up the Atlantic coast. It is scheduled to hit the area around RIR on race day. While the race has not been postponed, track boss Doug Fritz said officials are putting fan and driver safety first and will shut race down if Hanna makes a direct hit ... Frenchman Franck Perera will return to the IRL this weekend at Chicagoland with A.J. Foyt Racing as teammate to Darren Manning ... It didn't take Dan Wheldon long to find a new job after being replaced this week at Ganassi by Franchitti. Wheldon said yesterday he will join Panther Racing next year.


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