Last Three Weeks Show Ganassi Firing the Wrong Driver
Juan Pablo Montoya isn't ready to give up on this stock car deal just yet. After finishing a disappointing (for him) fifth place at Watkins Glen a few weeks ago, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing announced that Montoya would not be back in the #42 next season. Some expected to see Montoya essentially fold on the remainder of this season. With teammate Jamie McMurray still in Chase contention at the time, it seemed logical that he'd be getting the best Ganassi had to offer while Montoya played out the string. Instead, JPM has averaged a seventh place finish since the announcement with McMurray over ten spots lower. It was time for Ganassi to make a change but it may well be that Chip let the wrong driver go.
Montoya came to EGR with the best of hopes and intentions. A successful driver for Ganassi on the open wheel level and a Formula 1 race winner, Montoya had the kind of pedigree most NASCAR rookies hope to have when their career is done. But his lack of stock car experience hurt and Montoya struggled to adapt his aggressive, all-in style to a grinding series that demands consistency. While Montoya won a couple road course races, he never seemed able to seal the deal at an oval track. The individual races reflected Juan's season-long problems; isolated terrific performances ruined by a single mistake. Putting it all together was something Montoya did in only one NASCAR season, a Chase birth, in 2009.
Official diecast car for Montoya from Lionel
So it's understandable that after seven seasons Ganassi wants to try something new. He has a developmental driver in Kyle Larson who's shown tremendous potential. After all, the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Since the results haven't been there for Montoya, why not give the rookie a chance and see what he has?
Yet if it's time to move on from Montoya, it's puzzling to see that McMurray is getting a free pass. McMurray had a triumphant return to EGR in 2010 where he won three races including premier events at Daytona and Indianapolis. But that “triumphant return” accomplished only a 14th place finish in the overall season standings. And since that season, McMurray has a total of three top five and eight top ten finishes for the team. Meanwhile, Montoya has double the top five and top ten finishes, not to mention double the pole starts. He finished higher in the final season standings in both 2011 and 2012. McMurray is ahead of Montoya this season but neither will make the Chase and Juan may yet pull ahead by season's end. If the team is truly looking to make a fresh start then why is the lesser performing driver staying on?
EGR co-owner Felix Sabates recently took great offense to commentator Kenny Wallace's comments about the EGR race team but sometimes the truth hurts. Wallace having a possible ax to grind regarding Sabates doesn't change the fact he's right about his evaluation of the team. The Earnhardt Childress Racing engines the team used in 2011 and 2012 didn't have the horsepower of Hendrick, TRD or Roush. Nor did the chassis built by the team have the same speed their competitors had. That's not an insult to what EGR has accomplished but an obvious fact given its record in qualifying and during the race. Letting crew chief Brian Pattie escape for Michael Waltrip Racing didn't help either. The rapid rise of Clint Bowyer is proof enough of that.
To be fair, EGR clearly recognized their equipment wasn't good enough. Despite owning half of the engine shop, they stopped using the ECR engines and began purchasing their motors from Hendrick. Having engines that are both faster and more reliable under the hood made a difference, particularly for Montoya. He has as many top five and top ten finishes this year alone as he did the two prior years combined. Moreover, Montoya led laps at multiple oval courses including Richmond, Dover and this weekend at Atlanta. McMurray's improvement showed more in consistency; instead of finishing two or three laps down, he's generally finished near the end of the lead lap. That's been especially helpful when a late race crash takes out several cars at it did at Bristol a few weeks back.
In the weeks since his announced departure, Montoya has been relatively quiet on his plans for next year. Ganassi hasn't closed the door on Montoya entirely, hinting that he'd be willing to work with the driver on an open wheel or Grand Am ride. Juan has also indicated that his heart never left open wheel racing- but that statement may be more a reflection of his grip on reality than it is of intent. Success in any form of racing depends in part on having equipment as good as those around you and Juan is unlikely to find a team in NASCAR willing to offer him that for 2014. He's also never driven a stock car for anyone other than Ganassi and at age 37, he's likely not inclined to start his learning curve elsewhere.
The RaceHub crew looks at Montoya's options
But if Montoya departs NASCAR it will be a loss for both the series and the fans. If his name was John Monroe instead of Juan Montoya, he would be a driver that half the fanbase loved and half hated. In an era when far too many drivers have corporate personalities and conservative racing styles, Montoya is a throwback. He'd be right at home on Thursday Night Thunder, competing in a “checkers or wreckers” event where it didn't matter where you finished if you didn't win.
Juan Pablo is an entertaining racer to watch whether it's lap 20 or lap 199. During the early laps of a race, commentators often note that there's a “time and place” for Juan's brand of aggressive driving. Other drivers talk about how there's “no reason” to fight that hard with so many laps to go. But it's that attitude that makes the early laps of many races so dreadfully dull. It may be the right thing to do for a team's championship hopes but it certainly doesn't lead to exciting racing. NASCAR has always valued consistency over a brilliant but brief performance and so it proves once again with Montoya soon to be out of work.
If Juan Pablo is to stay in NASCAR, there are very few rides left on the table for him. Ryan Newman seems set for one of two options. One is the #78 car of Richard Childress Racing satellite team Furniture Row; the other is to drive for RCR directly. If Newman takes the second option, Montoya and Furniture Row would be a terrific fit for one another. Montoya is similar in style and disposition to FR's current driver, Kurt Busch. Both have had run-ins with numerous other drivers over the years. Both have a hyper-aggressive driving style that takes them to the front or to the wall. And like Busch, Montoya would be coming into the arrangement with something to prove.
That chip on the shoulder may well be Montoya's best asset right now. It's led him to a string of races where he's run up front and finished well. It's led him back to a silly season conversation that once only consisted of Grand Am and IRL rides. Unlike the end to his F1 career, Montoya has the opportunity to finish strong and prove that he belongs on the race track. Doing so may get him the chance to extend his NASCAR career somewhere else.
Meanwhile, a teammate driving the same (or better) equipment who also hasn't won in three years isn't going anywhere. Like Montoya, McMurray got his Sprint Cup start driving for Ganassi. Unlike Montoya, however, McMurray has had the opportunity to drive elsewhere. He spent several underwhelming years at Roush Fenway, where he won only two races over four seasons. In 11 plus seasons at the Sprint Cup level, McMurray has never made NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. He makes no waves with his fellow drivers but he also shows no signs of ever becoming a championship contender.
As team owner, Ganassi has every right to expect the best from his drivers. And if he feels the time has come for a change, then it's both his right and his duty to make that change. But if he's going to make a change, it would have made more sense to do a clean sweep of his organization. A team can thrive with two young drivers behind the wheel; one needs to look no farther than Roger Penske's team for proof. Brad Keselowski won the series title last year and Joey Logano looks primed to make the Chase this season for the first time. However, if Ganassi was to show only one driver the door, he may well have picked the wrong one.