Who will replace Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing?

Tom Pennington

Who should Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing sign to replace Juan Pablo Montoya? That is the critical decision facing Chip Ganassi.

With nine IndyCar championships and four victories in the Indianapolis 500, Chip Ganassi knows the nuances of running a thriving open-wheel organization.

However, the success Ganassi enjoyed in IndyCar has not transferred to NASCAR. His Sprint Cup team, known as Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, has floundered beyond a few notable exceptions.

At a time when many high-profile teams are lacking sponsorship, EGR is one of the few organizations that secured full funding for its two cars. It also has the same engines that propelled Tony Stewart to a championship in 2011 and a Chase berth a year ago.

In spite of these advantages, success has been fleeting for EGR, the team constantly perceived as a chronic underachiever.

To shake up the status quo, Ganassi put his loyalty aside and made the decision not to bring back Juan Pablo Montoya for an eighth season -- an announcement confirmed by team officials Tuesday.

It was a difficult conclusion for Ganassi to make considering his close relationship with Montoya, which dates back to their time together in open-wheel. Yet as difficult a choice as it may have been for Ganassi, and despite some close calls this season when Montoya seemed positioned for his first win on an oval, it was the only choice to make for the future of EGR.

As a stock-car driver, Montoya is what he is at this point. Some weeks, he'll show flashes of brilliance, giving the illusion that he has the making of a perennial Chase contender. More often than not, though, his NASCAR career has been devoid of the consistency needed to be a factor regularly.

An obvious aspect of Ganassi's decision was the surplus of talented drivers available to occupy the seat of the No. 42 car. And because of secured sponsorship from Target and the team's competitiveness, EGR operates from an area of strength not afforded to other outfits as it searches for Montoya's successor.

And while uncertainty looms, the name mentioned most often as a potential replacement is already under contract with EGR.

At 21 years old, Kyle Larson is viewed as the sport's No. 1 prospect, a driver held in the same regard as a young Tony Stewart. Debuting this season in the Nationwide Series, Larson quickly delivered upon the massive hype accompanying his arrival. In 21 starts, he has a dozen top-10 finishes, including a pair of runner-up finishes. He also won a April Truck Series race at Rockingham.

His advanced proficiency behind the wheel, combined with his youth, makes Larson a sponsor's dream. And with Target's contract expiring after the 2014 season, having the opportunity to be paired with Larson might be the incentive the company needs to sign an extension.

However, is Larson ready to make the leap into Sprint Cup waters after just one season in Nationwide? All one has to do is look at the cautionary tales of Casey Atwood, Joey Logano or other young hot shots who moved up to NASCAR's top series before they were fully prepared.

Tempting as it may be to bring Larson up, the astute move would see EGR keep him in Nationwide for another season. And when Jamie McMurray's contract is up after next season, Larson would be the natural choice to drive the No. 1 car beginning in 2015.

But Larson isn't the only option for EGR.

As they will be for every available ride, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman will also be considered by Ganassi. Both have the pedigree that EGR is looking for, with each owning double-digit Cup wins and multiple appearances in the Chase.

But like Larson, Busch and Newman come with question marks.

While Busch's talent is undeniable, would his history of surliness off the track be too much for Target to look past? It's doubtful that a driver who has dubbed himself "The Outlaw" would be seen as the ideal driver for a team sponsored by a company with a family-first reputation.

As for Newman, is he a significantly better upgrade over Montoya?

Although Newman has 17 victories on his résumé, eight of those came in a single season. And in the 10 years since that magical 2003 campaign, he has won just nine races and never finished better than sixth in the standings.

If the rationale behind saying goodbye to Montoya involved finding a driver who could elevate EGR to the next level and bring Ganassi his first Cup championship, then this year's winner of the Brickyard 400 is not the answer.

After years of tepid success with little year-to-year stability, EGR finds itself at a crossroads. With the right hire, Ganassi has an opportunity to forge a new persona for his team, while the wrong choice will bring continued lackluster results.

Which direction will he choose?

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