Thomas Bowles · Wednesday August 14, 2013
Did You Notice?… Juan Pablo Montoya’s NASCAR career is three months from ending? That’s a cold reality after Tuesday’s late-breaking story he’ll be released from his Earnhardt Ganassi ride after the season. On paper, that’s not a surprise. 22nd in the standings, he’s a whopping 292 points behind Jimmie Johnson and is almost certain to miss the Chase. With just three top-5 finishes, only Marcos Ambrose and Danica Patrick have done worse among the fully funded drivers to run every race.
But numbers don’t carry emotion, a human connection that keeps athletes afloat long after their time has come. That’s why this release has sent shockwaves through the NASCAR community. Owner Chip Ganassi, through seven years of employing Montoya has remained loyal and adamant the former Indy 500 winner can one day master the art of stock car racing. Where other drivers, like Reed Sorenson were released after a few short years to prove themselves it seemed like his Colombian protégé was given a lifetime leash. In stories announcing the move, it was even noted how a possible ride exists in IndyCar, SportsCar Racing or other Ganassi teams should they find the proper funding for Montoya (F1 is not an option). It’s a happy marriage of personalities, so good that it took three times as long as seemingly everywhere else for poor results to lead to that pink slip.
Was it deserved? Try asking Casey Atwood, AJ Allmendinger, or Regan Smith that question. Each was axed, from their first Cup rides without the seven years of patience EGR has given in this case. During that time, there’s been limited success: one Chase appearance, two wins, a few dangling carrots of oval dominance ruined by some late-race nightmare. Overall, though, Montoya’s lasting legacy of an aggressive driving style was also his downfall. His first Cup start was a wreck with Ryan Newman, a driver who later punched him in the face inside a NASCAR hauler in one of a handful of heavyweight rivals he created. Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, even mild-mannered teammate Jamie McMurray were, at times the “Target” of his front bumper. Bravado may earn you points in the boxing ring, but it certainly doesn’t help you score some on the racetrack – especially when your car’s on the wrecker in pieces.
At the same time, while justified, Tuesday was a dark day within NASCAR Nation. Chances are Montoya will vanish altogether; he’s too proud and accomplished to accept a full-time ride in Nationwide, similar to what Sam Hornish, Jr. did with Penske Racing. There’s little to no Cup options out there, meaning he’ll be off the circuit week-to-week. And what we lose from Montoya is a dose of personality other, up-and-coming drivers (including likely replacement Kyle Larson) can’t match. Love him or hate him, the Colombian spent his time firing people up while becoming one of the most difficult cars to pass each race. In an era where people move over for each other, too often like we’re driving on the highway and curtsy like they’re part of a ballet dance, not an athletic competition, that is going to be sorely missed. Montoya was one of those “love or hate” people that brought an opinion out of everyone involved in the sport: fans, drivers, media. Another “cookie-cutter” type replacement in the wake of his departure means there’s one less driver we can count on for a lovable quote.
Good luck, Juan Pablo. We’ll miss your candid moments: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Did You Notice?… Aaron’s stepped up to back Brian Vickers for a full season of competition? That, to me was the most important part of Tuesday’s announcement that had been expected for several months. There’s no doubt the 29-year-old, July’s New Hampshire winner was the perfect fit within Michael Waltrip Racing, rebuilding a career with hard work and perseverance. But you can’t build a marriage in today’s Cup competition without the big-time money to go with it.
Aaron’s, which had gone through some management restructuring, was far from a 100 percent lock. They’d only signed on board for about two-thirds of the Cup schedule, the last two seasons and had shied away from backing Vickers when he slid behind the wheel. You’d have to think that surprise victory at Loudon, one Mark Martin had never given them was the turning point needed for someone to open the safe.
What we do know is Vickers, along with soon-to-be-re-signed crew chief Rodney Childers become a formidable Chase contender in 2014. Right now, if you projected his limited schedule of results over a full season he’d be 18th in the standings, in contention for a bid. Those numbers should only improve with a Chase mindset, not a win-or-bust mentality combined with the consistency of being in the car every week. As long as Vickers keeps his car in one piece, an occasional stumbling block during his best years with Red Bull Racing a career year could easily be within reach. And if he ever makes the Chase, with a team capable of competing don’t forget he’s one of the sport’s best on intermediates, tracks which make up five of those final ten races.
With this signing, MWR now becomes the only “megateam” within the Cup Series that has all its full-time drivers under 35 years old. Hard to believe, considering their rocky 2007 start but they’ve positioned themselves to be contenders over the long-term.
Did You Notice?… A few quick hits before taking off…
- Mark Martin’s future remains “undetermined” at Michael Waltrip Racing for 2014. Waltrip does want a fourth car to run in at least the Daytona 500; could Martin slide behind for some more events? I think it’s unlikely, especially considering Clint Bowyer has ten unsponsored races on the No. 15 car. With no solid options, my hunch remains that Martin, at 54 years old is going to say “enough” after a down year and hang up the driving shoes.
- Considering Austin Dillon’s 11th-place finish, at Michigan in June he’s not a bad choice to sub for Tony Stewart. But what happened to good old-fashioned competition? Here’s a Chevy team whose rival is going to run Dillon, full-time on the Cup circuit next season. So you’re helping develop a rookie who’s going to potentially turn around and beat you? When there are other veterans, such as Regan Smith more closely connected to the team and available?
Again, Dillon deserves an opportunity just as much as several others on the list. But at some point, this whole everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya has got to be one of the problems, right? People don’t watch NFL because the Defense stops covering and helps the Offense score a touchdown. What happened to rivalries? Looking out for oneself instead of all 43 teams coming together in a big metal-melting hug? Dillon has plenty of extra opportunities to run in Cup coming up, with the team he’s actually going to be driving for. It’s also notable Elliott Sadler, last season while with RCR got nixed from driving a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing – the very decision that gave Vickers the opportunity he took advantage of.
- The next surprise departure we could see from the Cup Series, after years of trying is Marcos Ambrose. 23rd in points, now without his signature win at Watkins Glen that’s “salvaged” the past two seasons his No. 9 Ford team has clearly regressed. With Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola running well, 18th in points you’d have to think the Australian superstar is frustrated. With 36 top-10 finishes in 177 starts, along with two wins on road courses those numbers look suspiciously mediocre… like Montoya’s.
But here’s where the two differ: Ambrose won’t wait for the axe. Last season, sources told me big money was offered for him to go back down under. Will the temptation of top-tier equipment, back in his homeland be too much to resist?
- You think Jeff Gordon, with his five DNFs is frustrated? Try being Travis Kvapil. He’s got eight DNFs, the most of the full-time Cup competitors running the distance and seven have been outside his control. It’s been three wrecks alone, in the last six weeks where he’s played the role of victim. You just didn’t hear about it until Danica Patrick was held responsible…
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