A positive spin for IRL defections?

With its season opener six weeks away, the Indy Racing League is getting some preseason exposure from an unlikely source. During the run-up to NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, the spotlight shined on two IRL alums vying for the stock car series’ 2008 rookie of the year honor.

Sam Hornish Jr., racing for Penske Racing, was the highest placing rookie, taking 15th at Daytona yesterday. He was in the top 10 much of the race. Dario Franchitti, who won last year’s Indianapolis 500 and now races for Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team, was further back, finishing 33rd, one place behind Juan Pablo Montoya, another open-wheel alum who was last year’s NASCAR rookie of the year. Franchitti, and his wife, Ashley Judd, got plenty of media exposure in the week before the race. Almost every news account mentioned that Franchitti is the reigning IRL and Indianapolis 500 champion.

It has become more common for IRL racers to jump to NASCAR ever since Tony Stewart made the leap more than a decade ago. The defections are often viewed negatively by IRL marketers. But some marketers think the series could benefit from the NASCAR-related exposure.

“While you don’t like to lose your superstars, there’s still a positive side,” said Zak Brown, president of Just Marketing,  an Indianapolis-based firm that pairs sponsors with motorsports teams. “These drivers, and their affiliation to the IRL, have the potential to draw attention to the series from a different audience.”

Is there an upside for the IRL to losing some of its most talented drivers to NASCAR? Or does it make the open-wheel series look like the minor leagues?

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