Montoya move to Penske shows it's always personal
"Sonny, it's always personal! The Don was so great because he took everything personally! If a lightning bolt struck one of his friends he'd take it personal!"
-Michael Corleone, in Mario Puzo's novel “The Godfather”
While the movie version of Don Michael didn't quite see it that way, Puzo hit on a central truth of life with this quote. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what the environment, it's always personal. The right product or position might get you in the door but in the end it's the personal relationships you build that close the deal. Conversely, it's almost impossible for something to be strictly business. Chip Ganassi chose to replace veteran Juan Pablo Montoya with an untested rookie in Kyle Larson. Montoya could have stayed in NASCAR or remained with Ganassi in another form of racing. Instead, he'll be moving over Ganassi's biggest IndyCar rival to run for Roger Penske next year. It's yet another example that in NASCAR it's always personal.
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The decision to let Montoya's contract expire after the 2013 season wasn't entirely a bolt from the blue. He'd won only two times and qualified for NASCAR's playoffs once since entering stock car racing full time in 2007. The team invested nearly seven years waiting for the Columbian's open wheel talents to transfer to the left turn only circuit. His equipment wasn't always the very best but Montoya often pushed it too far, resulting in wrecked race cars and irritated peers. Seven years in the same ride is a long time for any driver, much less one with Montoya's results. So it's no surprise that Ganassi wanted to make a change.
But like any other elite driver, Montoya has pride. When he gets into the car he truly believes that he is the very best driver on the track. And with the overall career results he's compiled, he has a right to think that way. For him to be replaced by a 21 year old kid with zero Sprint Cup starts must be galling. Even worse, he watched Ganassi re-sign Jamie McMurray despite McMurray having the same number of wins (zero) and a lower average finish over the last three years. JPM has every right to wonder just what McMurray's done to deserve an extension and the question surely gnaws at his soul.
Ganassi openly admitted he'd be willing to have Montoya back some day. After all, he brought McMurray back after the driver's fruitless sojurn with Roush Fenway. He had rides in both IndyCar and Grand Am/Rolex Car that were a possibility for Juan. But if you're Montoya, why would you go crawling back to the owner who just told the world that you couldn't cut it? Why would you put more wins and purse money in the pocket of the man who took away your livelihood?
Compared to NASCAR, either of those series is a major step down. Open wheel fans may be loathe to admit it but their sport is nothing more than a blip on the American sports landscape. They have one big weekend in May where casual fans wake up long enough to recognize there is indeed racing outside of NASCAR. Then they disappear for a full year. The ratings IndyCar draws on any weekend outside of Indianapolis are proof positive of that fact. And while NASCAR's ratings and attendance may be down, it's only compared to their own record-setting success. They race in front of crowds several times bigger than anything the Grand Am series will see in the next millennium. The only series out there with comparable prestige and pay to the Sprint Cup is Formula One and that door closed in Montoya's face seven years ago.
Before Monday's announcement, Montoya's name was attached to a number of different open rides in NASCAR. In particular, he seemed like an obvious candidate to replace Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing. He combined the same sort of high-level talent and checkered past that allowed Busch to flourish this past year in Denver. With tens of millions of dollars in career earnings, Montoya didn't need to go to the richest ride. And the pride factor came into play with Furniture Row as well. Did Montoya really want to leave NASCAR with his tail between his legs, chased out of the sport by a young kid in Larson?
Apparently, Juan's okay with that. Or more accurately, he's okay with that provided he gets the opportunity to stick it to Ganassi where it counts. While the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Sprint Cup operation is a solid mid-pack team, Ganassi's open wheel operation is top shelf. His teams won a total of nine series championships between the Champ Car and IndyCar operations. Their cars are often the class of the field and the question is not will a Ganassi car win but instead which one. Ganassi driver Scott Dixon sits second in series points and has three wins this season, tied for series-best.
Look at those standings one more time. Sitting one slot ahead of Dixon is Helio Castroneves- a driver for Team Penske. Despite only one win, Castroneves has had a more consistent season to date and with only two race weekends left to go, is the man to beat for the championship. The two teams have sparred repeatedly on both the track and the microphone. And as noted earlier, the IndyCar season revolves around the race at Indianapolis. Penske has 15 Indy wins compared to only four for Ganassi. The disparity in Indy wins is surely something that didn't escape JPM.
Montoya's 2014 plans were sealed the moment Penske slid a contract in front of the driver. In driving for the Captain, he'll have the very best of both worlds. For the first time in over a decade he'll be in equipment that's as good as (or better than) anything else on the track. He'll have the opportunity to run a set of tracks that better match his innate aggressiveness. Most of all, he'll have a regular chance to remind Chip Ganassi just what he lost in replacing Montoya behind the wheel of the #42. All the while, Juan will be able to take the high road, saying that the decision to drive for Penske was nothing personal, just business.
But just ask the real Michael Corleone. It's always personal.