With news of Juan Pablo Montoya’s departure from the No. 42 Target Chevy at season’s end, it seems hard to fathom that team owner Chip Ganassi did not have a game plan before he informed the driver his services would not be needed in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014.
Here are a few details to ponder before contemplating the potential candidates for the soon-to-be-vacated ride at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
• With Target holding the primary position in Ganassi’s sponsorship portfolio for the past 24 seasons, it’s clear that the retail giant was not receiving enough return on its NASCAR investment. Despite Montoya’s affable personality, international appeal and open-wheel resume, two wins over the course of seven years falls woefully short of the success from the IndyCar side of Ganassi’s operation. The days are dwindling in NASCAR when personality compensates for inadequate results.
• There’s a distinct changing of the guard taking place in NASCAR. It’s been about 15 years since a youth movement took over in the Sprint Cup Series and it’s getting ready to happen again. Marketers have always coveted the 18-to-25 market but that very demographic is not well represented in NASCAR’s top series. That’s about to change. There has already been evidence of a younger set infiltrating the trucks and Nationwide Series. And with 29-year-old Brad Keselowski’s reign as Sprint Cup champion, NASCAR has its youngest victor since a 26-year-old Kurt Busch won the title in 2004. Two distinct bonuses with 20-something drivers: Less of the sponsorship money goes to driver compensation and most of the drivers don’t have families to distract them from making the team their top priority.
• Montoya, who turns 38 next month, went through five crew chiefs in seven years. Entering this season, the veteran understood this was a contract year. Although the first 22 races of his second season with crew chief Chris Heroy has produced three top-five finishes compared with none last year, Montoya is still 22nd in the point standings — the same position he was in last year — and one position worse than in 2011. Although Montoya’s teammate Jamie McMurray is just one year younger, he’s posted five wins on a variety of tracks in the last seven seasons and is currently 15th in the point standings. Montoya has been running at the finish of every event this season and still has 14 races to prove his case to potential employers if he chooses to remain in NASCAR. And the opportunity to remain with EGR could be a viable solution should a new sponsor pop out of the woodwork or perhaps Ganassi could offer Montoya a ride in Grand Am.
While Earnhardt Ganassi Racing isn’t a top-tier NASCAR opportunity, the stop could provide an up-and-coming driver — or a racer looking to revitalize his career — with a launching point for future growth. With EGR’s new relationship with Hendrick Engines, horsepower isn’t something a driver can complain about.
So who are the top prospects for the No. 42 ride?
1) Kyle Larson — Before you jinx Larson with the "Slice Bread" moniker and send him down the same hopeless road that Joey Logano was thrust on five years ago when he replaced Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing, consider this: Yes, the kid is 21, the same age as Jeff Gordon when he made his debut for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon was running at the finish of 19 of 30 races his rookie year but went on to win the title two seasons later. While Larson has been compared to Gordon and Stewart, pundits says his versatility behind the wheel more closely resembles the latter. Larson would race every night if he could — and for right now that’s about 90 races. Larson told FOXSports.com last week that he understands when the time comes to move up to Cup, his schedule will have to change. My bet is that’s sooner rather than later.
2) Mark Martin/Kyle Larson — Martin’s role of mentor cannot be underestimated. Martin has cut back over the last couple of years, but he’s kept his future plans close to the vest. With Martin not returning to the No. 55 MWR Toyota next year, he could run a partial season with Larson and help the protégé acclimate to the responsibilities of Cup. Martin is also familiar with the Hendrick Motorsports relationship, having raced the No. 5 Chevy prior to his MWR stint. For that matter, Martin wouldn’t be a bad fit in the No. 14 for the rest of the season considering that Brian Vickers has already been named the driver of the Aaron’s ride. Just sayin’.
3) Ryan Newman — Although Newman has butted heads with Montoya and the No. 42 team in the past, there’s no mistaking his talent or resume. With 17 wins, 50 poles, multiple Chase appearances and a family custom-made for a Target ad, it goes without saying that Newman could be a solid fit. Newman is also acquainted to being a technical partner of Hendrick Motorsports. However, Newman also appears to be the front-runner for a fourth car at Richard Childress Racing, so unless that plan has changed over the last 72 hours, an announcement with the driver could be expected within a week to 10 days.
4) Kurt Busch — For now, Busch says he wants to concentrate on making the Chase before committing to 2014 plans. Still, with 24 wins on every style of track other than a restrictor-plate venue, the 2004 champ could be just the carrot to challenge his fellow teammates into picking up their program. The only question with Busch is whether Target will buy into the driver’s rehabilitated image. Right now Busch has raised the stock at Furniture Row and may vault the No. 78 team into the Chase for the first time in that operation’s history. If he paired up with Ganassi, however, he could realize his dream of running in the Indianapolis 500.
5) AJ Allmendinger — Like Busch, Allmendinger has skeletons in the closet but he has also worked overtime in proving his value to potential suitors. Take Watkins Glen, for example. After running out of gas on Lap 58, Dinger fought valiantly from 32nd over the remaining 32 laps to finish 10th — the best result for the No. 47 car all season. Dinger has shown his versatility from open wheel to Grand Am to stock cars — three series in which Ganassi has interest. And unlike Montoya, Dinger is a regular at any team’s shop he’s competing with and encourages time spent with his crew during the week in addition to the weekends. As of Tuesday night, Dinger had not spoken to EGR principals. Certainly, that could change, but given his loyalty to Roger Penske it’s doubtful that Dinger would race for the Captain’s chief IndyCar nemesis.