It wasn't supposed to be this way, eight years after Chip Ganassi surprised just about everyone in NASCAR by signing a Formula One driver for a Sprint Cup Series ride.
Sure, there would be a learning curve for Juan Pablo Montoya, also a former Indianapolis 500 winner. Sure, there would be struggles like that of his ominous debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006 when he exited the race after a crash set his car ablaze. But over time, Montoya's skill behind the wheel would translate to success.
At certain moments it did. He won his first cup series race within his first six months on the job at Sonoma Raceway in June of 2007. He qualified for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff system in 2009 during a season that was filled with 18 top-10 finishes. And in 2010, Montoya won his second career race at Watkins Glen.
But in many others, Montoya's performance continually lagged. His qualification for the Chase in 2009 was followed by three consecutive seasons where he finished no better than 17th in the point standings. In 72 starts in 2011 and 2012, he scored just two top-five finishes. He failed to finish some 37 of his 239 starts.
The latter of the two performance measures is what ultimately led to Tuesday's news—first reported by Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press—that Montoya's tenure at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing would be over in November at the close of the current cup series season. No replacement driver for his No. 42 Chevrolet has been named for 2014 and beyond.
The revelation officially kick-start's NASCAR's unregulated free-agent season—known in the sport as Silly Season—as Montoya's seat is the first vacated that will compete next season. Montoya joins veteran cup series wheelmen like Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin in wondering if each will have a seat when the music stops on NASCAR's version of musical chairs by the 2014 Daytona 500.
Montoya's situation may be the most anxious, pending he actually wants to continue a NASCAR career. His statistics in a middle-tier ride at EGR as noted previously simply failed to dazzle. His on-track reputation has never been high, either.
In his first season, Montoya quickly drew the ire of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick for on-track incidents largely due to Montoya's no-holds-barred style and aggressive nature. The reputation followed him through nearly every NASCAR season, and even made yet another appearance in August of this year when a bold first lap move at Pocono Raceway sidelined his car and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s car after a Turn 1 crash. Noting the timing of the separation news, that incident could have been one of the last straws Chip Ganassi needed to commit to a NASCAR future without Montoya.
Should Montoya seek racing outside of NASCAR, he'll likely have a wide-open array of options. He's already started a bit of a budding career in the Rolex Sports Car Series under the Ganassi banner, and he has two wins in the 24-hour endurance race at Daytona International Speedway. A potential return to IndyCar may be in the cards, or Montoya may find a racing series in his native South America in which to compete.
Montoya will end up somewhere. His time in NASCAR hasn't diminished the reverence of an ability that led him to dominate CART in 1999 and win seven Grand Prix during a five-and-a-half-year Formula One career. But just like his move to NASCAR, Montoya will seek out the opportunity that likely sounds the most fun and entertaining. It'll also be a competitive team, so don't expect Montoya to become a NASCAR back marker bouncing between start-and-park jobs.
On the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing side of things, Montoya's exit instantly puts into motion some highly critical decision-making processes. Chief among that list is figuring out what EGR will do with Kyle Larson, the 21-year-old driver in its development program that is finding Victory Lane routinely in multiple racing forms. Now in his first full Nationwide Series season with Turner Scott Motorsports, Larson has yet to win but has scored 12 top-10 finishes.
Moving Larson to Montoya's seat makes sense on the level that it gets the driver whom many consider to be NASCAR's next big star into a Ganassi-owned car before he can be courted away by another team. By not moving Larson to Montoya's seat, Ganassi faces the issue of how long to actually wait for that looming move and a worry about what driver would sign a contract knowing that it could be shortened with no recourse.
Should Ganassi opt to move in a different direction than Larson, the availability of Newman and Busch appear the most appetizing. Both drivers, however, may have concern over how competitive Ganassi's cup series operation actually is. EGR has just four race wins in the last five years and just over 20 percent of all finishes inside the top-10.
The good news for EGR is that NASCAR still exists in an arena where the number of driver jobs is far less than the number of available drivers. They'll certainly find a talented one for the future—it's just a wonder if youth or experience is the best option.
As for Montoya, being concerned about his future is a bit far-fetched. A winner of more than $35 million in on-track purse during his NASCAR career, Montoya can certainly take his time to find a suitable replacement gig. Where that replacement opportunity actually is remains to be discovered.
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