Strange reunion for these two

Times Staff Writer

Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya came to California Speedway in late 1999 to decide the championship for what was then the CART open-wheel racing series.

Montoya finished fourth and Franchitti 10th, leaving them in a tie for the title. But the trophy went to Montoya because he had more wins that season.

The day also was marred when driver Greg Moore, a close friend of Franchitti's, was killed in a crash only 10 laps into the race.

Nine years later, Franchitti and Montoya are back in Fontana -- only this time they're teammates driving stock cars in NASCAR's top-tier Sprint Cup Series.

The series holds its second race of the season today, the Auto Club 500, at the two-mile oval track that Friday changed its name to Auto Club Speedway.

Could Franchitti have imagined nine years ago that he and Montoya would be racing 3,400-pound stock cars for the team owned by Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates?

"Never," said the 34-year-old Scotsman of Italian descent. "I thought we would be teammates at some point, I just never thought it would be in NASCAR."

Franchitti starts 26th in the 43-car field today in the No. 40 Dodge, while Montoya starts 21st in his No. 42 Dodge.

"I'm excited, and I'm a little nervous about it as well," Franchitti said.

Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson starts on the pole in his No. 48 Chevrolet while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, lines up second on the outside of the front row.

Montoya, 32, led an influx of open-wheel racers into NASCAR when the former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One driver migrated to stock cars last year.

Franchitti, who won last year's Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series championship, also won the last open-wheel race held at the Fontana track, in October 2005.

This year he joined Montoya at Ganassi and is being tutored by the Colombian in the ways of NASCAR. Off the track they're also good friends, eat together often and are constantly needling each other.

Franchitti, who is married to actress Ashley Judd, drove his first Cup race at the season-opening Daytona 500 a week ago, where he finished 33rd, right behind Montoya.

They're hoping for a much better finish today, but Franchitti said their open-wheel racing experience on the Fontana track provides little help.

When they drove the Indy-style cars there, they barely lifted off the gas as they went through each corner and thus could feel the full force of the corners' 14 degrees of banking.

But in their Cup cars, they have to brake more forcefully in the corners and that makes the turns seem almost flat.

In pre-season testing in Fontana last month, "I pulled out of the pits and the first thing I said on the radio was, 'Where did the banking go?' " Franchitti said. "In a Sprint Cup car, it's just flat."

Montoya finished 20th in points in 2007, and he said that if Franchitti does that well in his debut year, his season would be a success.

"The faster [Franchitti] develops the better it's going to be for the whole team," Montoya said. "We've known each other for a long time, we really understand working together, where it can take us and that's going to help."

The forecast calls for rain today in Fontana, but NASCAR and the Auto Club Speedway are hopeful of getting the race completed.

The 250-lap race has a scheduled 1 p.m. start. If rain delays the green flag, NASCAR officials said they would wait as long as possible to get the race in because Auto Club Speedway has lights for night racing.

If the race is washed out, it probably would be run Monday. The series moves next to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for next Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400.

The 91 Freeway -- a key artery between the speedway and Orange County to the south -- was scheduled to be closed from 11 p.m. Saturday until 11:30 a.m. today.

The freeway is being closed at Green River Road near Corona for a bridge demolition. Caltrans officials urged drivers heading to the race to make alternate plans using the 57 and 60 freeways along with Interstate 10 and 15.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Auto Club 500

The starting lineup for today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Auto Club 500 race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Position was based on owner points:

*--* P. (No.) Driver, Car 1. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet 2. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet 3. (07) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet 4. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford 5. (5) Casey Mears, Chevrolet 6. (20) Tony Stewart, Toyota 7. (77) Sam Hornish Jr., Dodge 8. (31) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet 9. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford 10. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet 11. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet 12. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota 13. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge 14. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford 15. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet 16. (8) Mark Martin, Chevrolet 17. (01) Regan Smith, Chevrolet 18. (26) Jamie McMurray, Ford 19. (43) Bobby Labonte, Dodge 20. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge 21. (42) Juan Montoya, Dodge 22. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota 23. (41) Reed Sorenson, Dodge 24. (6) David Ragan, Ford 25. (96) J.J. Yeley, Toyota 26. (40) Dario Franchitti, Dodge 27. (19) Elliott Sadler, Dodge 28. (7) Robby Gordon, Dodge 29. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet 30. (28) Travis Kvapil, Ford 31. (66) Scott Riggs, Chevrolet 32. (38) David Gilliland, Ford 33. (70) Jeremy Mayfield, Chevrolet 34. (22) Dave Blaney, Toyota 35. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge 36. (2) Kurt Busch, Dodge 37. (44) Dale Jarrett, Toyota 38. (21) Bill Elliott, Ford 39. (83) Brian Vickers, Toyota 40. (00) David Reutimann, Toyota 41. (55) Michael Waltrip, Toyota 42. (34) John Andretti, Chevrolet 43. (78) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet Failed to Qualify 44. (84) A.J. Allmendinger, Toyota 45. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge 46. (10) Patrick Carpentier, Dodge 47. (27) Mike Skinner, Toyota 48. (08) Burney Lamar, Dodge *--*

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