COMMENTARY | With the news that Juan Pablo Montoya would not be returning to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014, it officially marked the end to a magical era in NASCAR.
It officially put an end to a time when open wheel and international racing stars were flocking to NASCAR, and races featured upwards of 50 cars trying to make a 43-car field were once again the norm. It was also a time when NASCAR could do no wrong, a time before the sport came crashing back to earth with thousands of empty seats and viewership plummeting at alarming rates.
Montoya's entrance into the sport symbolized NASCAR's arrival on the international scene. No longer a southern secret, NASCAR had gone global and with it converted millions of fans around the globe. Sponsors were falling over themselves to align with major NASCAR teams, and television ratings were at an all-time high.
But it was an era that simply couldn't sustain itself, and now NASCAR is left picking up the pieces and trying to find its footing once again.
The news that Montoya would not be returning for 2014 simply acted as a symbolic end to NASCAR's magical run in the 2000s, a run that officially put the sport on the map. A run that converted the casual fan and made it "cool" for fans from Florida to California to watch stock car racing. A run that saw the schedule leave the hallowed grounds of the deep South for stops in Chicago, Texas, Kansas and Las Vegas.
Whether you liked the new direction and globalization of NASCAR or not, there was no denying that it made stock car racing more popular than ever.
To fully understand the timetable of the NASCAR boom, you must first understand that at the same time the seven-time Formula 1 winner came into the sport, NASCAR was just beginning to take on its new identity.
At the same time as Montoya's entrance, a number of stars from other racing series were migrating to NASCAR. At the 2008 Daytona 500 alone, 53 drivers attempted to make the 43-car field, among them Formula 1 champions (Jacques Villeneuve) and American open wheel stars (A.J. Allmendinger, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti), in addition to the international presence of Toyota as a manufacturer and fresh new teams such as Red Bull Racing. It was so hectic that new rules were written just to guarantee that major teams had a spot in the field, avoiding the potential DNQ of a major NASCAR star.
While some of those ventures were short-lived, others turned into blossoming careers. Hornish is still enjoying a measure of success in NASCAR's Nationwide Series, while Allmendinger is attempting his big comeback as we speak. It also paved the way for current crossover stars such as Danica Patrick and Travis Pastrana to give NASCAR a try.
But through it all, Montoya remained the face of the new NASCAR.
When the then 31-year-old Formula 1 star announced his plans to leave McLaren-Mercedes in July of 2006 to drive the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing, it shocked the motorsports community. With obvious issues between Montoya and McLaren boss Ron Dennis, in addition to a case of what Montoya labeled "simple boredom," the most successful Colombian racer ever packed up his talents and teamed with Ganassi for a run in NASCAR.
His resume -- which includes wins in some of the world's biggest races, including the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Daytona and Formula One's crown jewel race at Monaco -- was the stuff of legend. But his prior success did not translate well on the NASCAR stage.
While Montoya's NASCAR career was not as flashy as he and Ganassi had hoped for -- with only two wins, both of which came at road races, in 239 starts and one stint in the Chase back in 2009 -- it was far from a failure. Montoya has shown flashes of brilliance in his career, coming as close as ever to winning on an oval in 2013, but bad luck and miscalculations kept the No. 42 out of the win column on NASCAR's bread and butter tracks.
During Montoya's lone run to the Chase, he finished eighth in the standings. His next highest points finish in seven seasons was 17th.
What Montoya's true legacy in NASCAR will be is still yet to be written. And Montoya may still yet get another shot in NASCAR. But no matter how you feel about the Montoya era and the new NASCAR, Montoya represents just how far this sport has come from a regional racing series to a global phenomenon.
And that alone is worth something.
L.A. Crum is a professional writer and journalist from Ohio. He is an avid fan of motorsports and college athletics and has worked with many of the top teams and drivers in the racing industry during his decade long career. He is a proud graduate of Marshall University.
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Juan Pablo Montoya