Experienced rookies will be boon to NASCAR

The youth movement in NASCAR has been issued a restrictor plate and slowed.

Next year's rookie class will seem young to you only if more time is spent trimming the hair in your nose and ears than the hair on your head.

Patrick Carpentier, 36.

Jacques Villeneuve, 36.

Dario Franchitti, 34.

Each of these popular, veteran racers has won major open-wheel races or championships but before this year had never driven a stock car in a major series.

The trio will join the favorite for this year's Nextel Cup top rookie, 32-year-old Juan Pablo Montoya, to form the best crop of open-wheel drivers to compete in Southern Nevada since Indy-style and Formula One races were held at Caesars Palace in the mid-1980s.

Instead of being strapped into Indy or F1 cars, each driver will be hunkered down in a stock car and trying to qualify for the UAW-Dodge 400 Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next March.

The field of fenderless imports will have an American flavor if former Indy 500 winner and three-time Indy Racing League champ Sam Hornish Jr. opts to shift from Penske Racing's IRL operation to its Cup stable. Hornish is 28. A couple of years ago that would have seemed old for a Cup rookie.

In addition to Montoya, this year's rookie group includes A.J. Allmendinger, who won five times last year in the Champ Car World Series.

This invasion of Indy-style drivers with Scotsman Franchitti, Colombian Montoya and Canadians Villeneuve and Carpentier gives NASCAR a diverse international blend.

In Franchitti, NASCAR gets its first European driver in its 59-year history. Perhaps more importantly, his wife, actress Ashley Judd, will grace pit road.

Carpentier, a Las Vegas resident, is the latest driver to make the switch. He was signed last week by Gillett Evernham Racing. George Gillett, who bought into Ray Evernham's Dodge operation earlier this year, is owner of the Montreal Canadiens.

Carpentier, a Quebec native, was honored Tuesday night at the Canadiens' game in Montreal when hockey Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur presented him with a No. 10 jersey, representing Carpentier's new car number and the one on Lafleur's retired jersey.

A hockey team honoring a Cup driver was incomprehensible a year ago, let alone it coming from a team in Canada.

The drivers mentioned above account for four Indianapolis 500 titles and six open-wheel championships, including Villeneuve's Formula One crown in 1997.

That alone makes these moves good for the Cup series, but the byproducts might have an even greater value.

Mainly, Cup teams could be forced to keep their big-name drivers in the garage during NASCAR Busch Series races and return to using that series as an outlet to give younger drivers experience.

You can't blame team owners for following Chip Ganassi's lead by hiring Montoya, who will have Franchitti as a teammate. Montoya, who has won Cup and Busch titles on road courses, has proven F1 snobbery doesn't have to carry over to NASCAR.

Next year's thirtysomething rookies are mature, experienced drivers. Owners might want relief from drivers in their early 20s who need to learn how to race in the major leagues and how to properly deal with media and sponsors.

Villeneuve, Franchitti and Carpentier do not need seminars in public relations or marketing.

And after teams invest in developing young drivers, they're likely to leave after a few years if they've been successful.

NASCAR probably will be the final stop for next year's rookies.

Each newcomer, along with Montoya, is in the twilight of his racing career and too old now for open-wheel racing anyway.

But it will be good for NASCAR and entertaining for fans.

• SAD NOTE -- The local racing community lost one of its brightest smiles Sunday when Vanessa Swalwell died from a brain aneurysm. She was 46.

The wife of former speedway champion Randy Swalwell and stepmother to current Super Late Models racer Travis Swalwell never missed a race when either driver was competing.

Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at First Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, with a public viewing at 10 a.m.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.