NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi shut down Dario Franchitti's race team Tuesday because of a lack of sponsorship, putting the former IndyCar Series champion's future in doubt.
Franchitti, the 2007 Indianapolis 500 winner and series champion, has struggled in his first NASCAR season driving Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge. He ranks 41st in the driver standings, failed to qualify for races in Texas and Sonoma, Calif., and missed five with a broken ankle he suffered in a Nationwide Series crash at Talladega.
The poor performance came as Ganassi has searched all season for a sponsor for his third NASCAR team. Longtime sponsor Coors Light left at the end of last season, and Ganassi was unable to secure funding despite releasing David Stremme for the more marketable Franchitti.
"If I keep going I run the risk of dragging the other two teams down. I don't want to do that," Ganassi told the Associated Press. "There's no money. It makes no sense to be running this out of my pocket. I had to put a stop to it."
Ganassi's other two Sprint Cups teams are driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, in his second NASCAR season, and Reed Sorenson, who's in the final year of his contract. Montoya is 20th in the standings and Sorenson is 32nd.
The entire No. 40 team was shut down, which resulted in 71 layoffs that included managing director of operations John Fernandez, Ganassi said. Steven Lane, crew chief for Franchitti's team, was not among those laid off.
Ganassi said Franchitti was disappointed but understood the decision, and the two have to discuss down the road what Franchitti will do for the rest of the season. One possibility is Franchitti could drive for Ganassi in the Nationwide Series, but promising development driver Bryan Clauson is scheduled to drive the car this weekend at Daytona International Raceway.
The decision was difficult for Ganassi, who said he struggled to sleep the past week as he agonized over what to do with his slumping race team. His IndyCar operation is soaring _ Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon have combined to win five of 10 races this season, including Dixon's Indy 500 victory, and are ranked first and third in the standings. But the NASCAR team has struggled most of the year.
Montoya and Sorenson have scored just a pair of top-10s each, while Franchitti's best finish was 22nd at Martinsville Speedway.
For Ganassi, a Pittsburgh-based team owner whose only business is racing, he reached a point where he and co-owner Felix Sabates had to stop the bleeding on Franchitti's team or risk his other two teams suffering because of it.
"This is a difficult decision for Felix and I that did not come without its share of anguish," Ganassi said. "In this tough business environment continuing to run the car without proper funding has become increasingly difficult."
Mike Accavitti, director of the Dodge Brand for Dodge Motorsports, viewed the closure of the No. 40 team as a tough decision necessary to improve the Ganassi program.
"We support Chip, Felix and their organization as they make decisions to solidify their overall program and achieve their objective of winning races and competing for the Sprint Cup," Accavitti said. "Chip and Felix now have the opportunity to apply additional resources to areas that can directly impact the on-track performance of the teams of Reed Sorenson and Juan Pablo Montoya."
It's not clear what will happen next for Franchitti, who came to NASCAR after a successful open-wheel career that saw him win 18 races in Champ Car and IndyCar. He won his first championship last season when he edged Dixon for the IndyCar title while driving for Andretti Green Racing.
The 35-year-old driver left Andretti at the end of last season to sign with Ganassi, a move that had been delayed a year. Franchitti and Ganassi had agreed for Franchitti to start his NASCAR career in 2007, but Montoya called before the deal was completed and was given the ride instead.
With sponsorship problems surrounding the No. 40, Ganassi released Stremme at the end of the season in hopes of securing funding for the likable Scotsman, who is married to actress Ashley Judd.
But the money never came in as Franchitti's adaptation to stock cars was slower than Montoya's. He had his best qualifying effort last week in New Hampshire when he started seventh, but he finished four laps down in 38th place.
The year has not been a total bust for Franchitti, though. He was part of the winning team in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race, a victory that put him alongside Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt as the only drivers to win the Indy 500, the IndyCar title, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Rolex 24.