Juan Pablo Montoya: does he still have it? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Juan Pablo Montoya.
What do these three big-time NASCAR stars have in common?
They're all free agents looking at 2014.
And.....they're all ex-Dodge drivers.
If Dodge execs are serious about NASCAR, about returning to the Sprint Cup tour, then this is a golden opportunity.
Three stock car racing superstars waiting at the telephones.
Montoya's first years were with Dodge. Newman won the Daytona 500 for Dodge. Busch was Dodge's lead man at Roger Penske's.
If Dodge execs Beth Paretta Bio here and Ralph Gilles Bio here aren't working the phones right now, then the company probably isn't very interested in NASCAR any more.
Opportunities like this come along once in a blue moon.
But it's the middle of August; could Dodge, restarting now, really be competitive at Daytona next spring?
Two months ago Ray Evernham, who put together the Dodge return to NASCAR in 2001, said emphatically yes.
However that was two months ago....
However these three stars weren't available two months ago either...
Ray Evernham, once the linchpin for Dodge in NASCAR. And he says Dodge could do it again in 2014...if it wants to (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Why hasn't Montoya been a great success in NASCAR?
That is not clear.
Few if any drivers on the Sprint Cup trail have car control like Montoya. That ARCA race at Talladega in the summer of 2006, a Montoya test run, just days after his stunning announcement that he was leaving Formula 1 for NASCAR, is still amazing to recall..
And Montoya was quickly accepted by most of his fellow drivers, this in a sport renowned for cliquishness.
On the track, well, maybe things were a bit more ragged for Montoya. He's had some run-ins, though that's certainly not unusual.
Maybe after the intensity and ferociousness of F1, Montoya became too relaxed in the more easy-going NASCAR world, for too long.
But maybe the ride itself wasn't as good as it could have been. Maybe Montoya just needed a fresh start somewhere, but didn't go for any opportunities.
Maybe Ganassi's decision to drop Brian Pattie as crew chief was a mistake. Pattie has been doing quite well as crew chief for Clint Bowyer, who sits second in the Sprint Cup standings, with a shot a the championship.
Ganassi used five different crew chiefs with Montoya over seven years, not exactly consistency there. No time to develop much magic.
Maybe Ganassi's whole operation just hasn't been up to the top standards of Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs. The engine/engineering switch from Richard Childress to Rick Hendrick hasn't been a cure-all.
"A lot of it was learning at the beginning," Montoya says of his NASCAR learning curve since joining in 2006. "But I thought I picked it up pretty well. I run really well. I made the chase in my third year.
"One of the hardest things -- the amount of changes. There was never any consistency. It wasn't because they were doing it on purpose; they were just trying new things and trying to make things better. The problem is every time you make changes it makes it harder.
"He has made a lot of changes through the years; a lot of changes for him were logical, for me were not.
"I just want to make sure whatever I do (next) I have an opportunity to win races. I grew up winning and I've won at everything. I won some races here, but I miss dominating.
"I had a great seven years. I learned a lot. Whether you believe it or not, I became a better driver."
Comparing teammate to teammate, Montoya with Jamie McMurray:
Montoya is 22nd in the Sprint Cup standings, McMurray 15th.
And McMurray has a better average finish, 17.136 over the season's 22 races, to Montoya's 20.773.
But Montoya has three top-fives (Richmond, Dover, Watkins Glen) to McMurray's one (Kentucky). And Montoya has led more laps, 100 to 46.
Is this real story here more about Team Ganassi not giving Montoya front-running equipment, or about Montoya not getting the job done for too long?
While some may be focusing on why Montoya and team owner Chip Ganassi just decided to split at the end of the season, and on who might take that ride, the opening for Dodge is clearly the more important story here.
Perhaps Ganassi will gamble on newcomer Kyle Larson, who has shown a lot of promise on the Nationwide tour. But just ask Joey Logano -- running Cup involves a lot more than just being a talented driver, a lot more. And Ganassi himself probably still remembers the problems Jason Leffler had in that too-early Cup run.
Yes, there is a youth movement of sorts underway in this sport, with men like Austin Dillon, 23, Ricky Stenhouse, soon to be 26, Trevor Bayne, 22, and Brad Keselowski, 29. And NASCAR demographics -- fans as well as drivers -- is an interesting topic.
But bringing new drivers up to speed in all the nuances of this sport can be quite expensive..even if the salaries are much cheaper.
And if Dodge thinking about getting back into the top tier of American racing, this looks like the perfect opening: Montoya, at 37, and Newman and Busch, both at 35.
All three in their prime. And all three with something to prove.
The next move...
Montoya: now something to prove? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)