The Next Domino To Fall
On Wednesday morning, we got confirmation of what so many of us had been speculating about for weeks – Josef Newgarden would be joining Team Penske for 2017, driving the No.2 car that had been driven by Juan Montoya for the past three seasons. Word has it that Montoya has been offered a one-off opportunity for Indianapolis with Team Penske, but he is looking elsewhere for full-time opportunities.
Make no mistake – Juan Montoya is the next domino to fall as the 2017 lineup begins to take shape. His decision for his future will dictate other futures, as well.
Rick Mears took a part-time deal with Team Penske in 1978. His reasoning was that a part-time deal with Penske was better than a full-time ride with other teams. The difference is that Mears was at the beginning of his career. He was signed for his potential rather than his past accomplishments. Mears had yet to win a single race, much less any of his four Indianapolis 500 wins or his three championship seasons.
Juan Montoya has two Indianapolis 500 wins on his resume. Even more impressive is the fact that he has won half of the “500’s” he’s been in. He won the 1999 CART title as a rookie, and lost the 2015 IndyCar title on a tie-breaker. Altogether, he has five Indycar wins, ten CART victories, seven Formula One wins and two NASCAR Cup victories to his credit. You will be hard-pressed to find a current racer with such a successful and varied background.
But Juan Montoya is forty-one years old and is coming off of one of the most disappointing seasons in his career.
The big question is…where does he go from here? Does he take one of the best prepared cars for the Indianapolis 500 and not do anything else, or does he go for a full-time ride elsewhere? There is no easy answer.
There are several possibilities and scenarios that have been tossed about. One has Montoya going to Ganassi to drive one of the cars currently occupied by either Max Chilton or Tony Kanaan. I’ve maintained that Tony Kanaan will remain in the No.10 car for all of 2017. I haven’t heard anything that anyone else hasn’t – it’s just more of a gut feeling. As far as Chilton is concerned, I don’t know enough about the Gallagher sponsorship to even comment. But based on recent comments, it sounds as if Chilton has the flexibility to take it elsewhere if he so desired.
But if Chilton did go elsewhere, would Montoya automatically slide right in? Probably not if Montoya brings no money to the table. Remember, Ganassi is still trying to firm up Scott Dixon’s sponsorship after Target’s departure. I’m not sure he’s in a position to fund the No.8 car too.
Another popular destination among fans has Ed Carpenter hiring Montoya to replace the recently departed Josef Newgarden – essentially just creating a driver swap between ECR and Team Penske. It seems that everyone has penciled Montoya into Newgarden’s empty seat, but I just can’t see it.
Ed Carpenter has a history of hiring American drivers. Even before he was a car-owner and he drove for step-father Tony George’s Vision Racing, Vision almost always hired American drivers. South Africa’s Tomas Scheckter is the only non-American fulltime driver to ever drive an IndyCar for Vision. Canadian Paul Tracy and Brazilian Roberto Moreno each made one appearance in a Vision car; but overall – their history was to put Americans in the seat and on the track.
That tradition was continued when Ed Carpenter formed his own team in 2012. When Ed stepped out of the cockpit for non-ovals beginning in 2014, he did sign Britain’s Mike Conway to drive. That was a perfect match since Conway had previously announced he would never drive on ovals again. But when Conway was unavailable in 2015, Italian Luca Filippi got the job.
The 2016 season started out with ECR running only the No.21 car of Josef Newgarden. Ed still ran at Phoenix, but the first few races saw only the car of Newgarden representing ECR on the non-ovals. By May, American JR Hildebrand had rejoined the team for the Grand Prix and the “500”. This is another gut feeling, but I’m thinking that JR Hildebrand may be tabbed to fill Newgarden’s seat in the No.21 car and that Carpenter and American Spencer Pigot may continue to split time in the No.20 car. That would continue to give ECR three American drivers on their roster. There is just something that tells me that Juan Montoya would not be a good fit at ECR.
So just where does that leave Montoya? Even at this early stage of the offseason, there are just so many vacant seats for 2017.
One possibility is the empty seat at KVSH Racing. Whether or not it is official, all reports indicate that Sébastien Bourdais will make the curious move to Dale Coyne that I’m still scratching my head about. If that is indeed a done deal, I could see Montoya going to KVSH and reuniting with his old Ganassi teammate Jimmy Vasser.
That could actually be a good landing spot for Montoya. Regardless of his sub-par season this past year, Montoya hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to drive a race car. Let’s remember that he did win this year’s season-opener at St. Petersburg.
We don’t know what was going on behind the scenes at Team Penske, where the other drivers finished 1-2-3 in the championship, while Montoya finished eighth. Team Penske is usually very buttoned up about any internal strife. Anything that we hear about the goings on at Penske are usually what they want to get out. I can only assume there were other factors going on with Montoya’s team besides bad luck on the track. When Montoya joined the team in 2014, Team Penske was expanding from two full-time cars to three to accommodate him. In 2015, they expanded to four cars for the first time ever when Simon Pagenaud joined the team. Did that have a long-term effect that just surfaced this past season? Who knows?
But I do think that Montoya may flourish on a smaller one-car team. I also think that KVSH may be wise to expand to two cars, for data sharing if nothing else. Of course, I’m always good at telling other people how they should spend their money. But if the funding isn’t there, having Juan Montoya as your only driver is not a bad thing.
So if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Juan Montoya ending up at KVSH and driving for Jimmy Vasser. If that’s the case, he’ll have plenty of motivation next season – every time he sees a Penske car on the track.
Please Note: I will be attending a dreaded family reunion all weekend long and will not have any chance to write. Therefore, there will be no post here on Monday October 10. I will return on Wednesday October 12. – GP