Drivers making most of opening

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti 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 series standings -- better than most expected.

He has plenty of followers.

Fellow open-wheel stars Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier are making the same jump this year.

"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 -- others believe it will be good for the sport.

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

"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," veteran driver Kyle Petty said.

It started with Montoya, a Colombian who won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and the 1999 CART Series championship. He has seven Formula One victories.

The newcomers have equally impressive rÃsumÃs:

l Franchitti is the defending Indy 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion. The 34-year-old Scotland native also has 10 CART wins.

l Carpentier, a 36-year-old Canadian, won races in CART and Champ Car before moving to the IndyCar Series in 2005.

l Villenueve, a 36-year-old Canadian, won the 1995 Indy 500, the 1995 CART championship and the 1997 Formula One title.

l Hornish, an American, won three IndyCar championships and the 2006 Indy 500.

Despite all their success, the newcomers have no illusions of what's in store for them.

"I'm looking at it as a learning experience," Franchitti said. "... 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."

DAYTONA 500

WHAT: 50th running of "The Great American Race"

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway; Daytona, Fla.

WHEN: 3:40 p.m. Sunday

POLE SITTER: Jimmie Johnson

OUTSIDE POLE: Michael Waltrip

DEFENDING CHAMPION: Kevin Harvick

TV: Fox-Ch. 54

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