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NASCAR NOTEBOOK: Montoya loses NASCAR Sprint Cup ride; ‘Smoke’ sidelined for month with broken leg

Reporters interview NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Juan Pablo Montoya during practice for the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Montoya found out this week that his contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing was not being renewed.

Reporters interview NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Juan Pablo Montoya during practice for the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Montoya found out this week that his contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing was not being renewed.

BROOKLYN, Mich. — By the time Juan Pablo Montoya got the official word that he was out of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet at the end of the 2013 season, it was almost an anticlimax.

For months, Montoya had known the parting was coming, and he had already begun to explore other options.

“I think I knew from quite a while ago, to be honest with you,” Montoya told reporters at Michigan International Speedway behind the No. 42 transporter. “(EGR) had an option earlier in the year and they didn’t take it, so I kind of knew it was going to be something different next year, and that’s it.

“They confirmed it this week, and that was it.”

As to what the future holds, Montoya has only one requirement.

“The only thing I said already is I want to be in a winning car,” he said. “Whatever else I do — don’t know what I’m going to do — but I want to make sure I’m in a winning car.”

What kind of winning car remains to be seen. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion, Montoya also has seven Formula One victories on his resume. A return to open-wheel racing isn’t out of the question.

“I have talked to a lot of people — put it that way,” Montoya said. “I don’t want to be specific about anybody. I know some people are interested, and I just want to make sure whatever I do, as I told you, (that) 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.”

During his media availability, however, Montoya did provide a couple of revealing clues. The first involved loyalty to a particular manufacturer.

“Apart from the relationship with (sponsor) Target, the relationship with Chevy is really important to me,” he said.

The second was an indication that seven full seasons in NASCAR racing — with just two road-course wins to show for his efforts — might be enough.

“I was committed to NASCAR, and when you’re committed to NASCAR, you want to make sure your head is in NASCAR,” said Montoya, who ran the second fastest lap in Friday’s opening Sprint Cup practice (203.132 mph).

“My heart always has been in open wheel. I had a lot of fun in NASCAR — and, you know, we will see.”

DOMINOES GAME: Montoya’s impending departure from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing leaves a desirable open seat for 2014. As the silly-season dominoes start to fall, the question becomes: Who will fill it?

It’s no secret that owner Chip Ganassi has 21-year-old prodigy Kyle Larson signed to an eight-year contract. Whether Larson is ready to make the leap to full-time Cup racing after one season in the Nationwide Series is an open question.

It’s also no secret that Kurt Busch had discussions with EGR long before the announcement of Montoya’s departure. To Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, the landscape hasn’t changed appreciably since the parting between Ganassi and Montoya became official.

“It hasn’t changed anything,” Busch said Friday at Michigan. “I’m good friends with Felix Sabates, and I know Chip real well, the whole gang — (team manager) Max Jones, (EGR president) Jake Lauletta — and they came up with that decision, not based off any of the talks I’ve had with them, but it is a potential opportunity. That’s for sure.”

Busch also is talking to his current team, Furniture Row Racing, about a possible extension, but his primary focus is on qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With four races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond, Busch is 11th in the Cup standings, two points behind Martin Truex Jr. in 10th.

“The focus is making the Chase, and we have four weeks to go,” said Busch, who threw out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game earlier this week. “We’re in a great position. It’s been neat to feel the energy of the team. We spent a week in Colorado meeting with Denver media, and they’ve adopted us as a fifth sports entity for that town. It’s really neat. They talk Broncos, they talk Rockies, and now they’re talking us.

“So it’s cool to have talks with Furniture Row about what we can do in 2014 and beyond. The Ganassi thing came up, and other phone calls have happened. Nothing’s been changed. We’re just really focused on the Chase and what we can do in the next four weeks together.”

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME: Saturday’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course took place in the back yard of Columbus-based series title sponsor Nationwide Insurance, and NNS teams embraced the title charity in the debut of the series’ first visit to the 2.4-mile road course.

Collectively, 13 different cars — those driven by Brian Scot, Austin Dillon, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, Sam Hornish Jr., Justin Allgaier, Parker Kilgerman, Travis Pastrana, Alex Bowman, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose and Michael Annett — paid homage to the cause with prominent placement in their respective paint schemes.

All told, teams have donated more than $650,000 in stock car “real estate” — meaning positioning on hoods, TV panels, names above doors and full cars — to call attention to the mission of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Each participating driver was paired with a hospital patient for the race.

After the event, drivers signed hoods and other sheet metal from their cars, with the memorabilia to be auctioned online through the NASCAR Foundation.

“As the title sponsor of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, we’re pleased to help bring this race to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as a way to demonstrate our passion for both NASCAR and Nationwide Children’s Hospital,” said Matt Jauchius, Nationwide’s chief marketing officer. “Nationwide Children’s Hospital touches lives around the world, providing critical care for young patients, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

“We can’t thank the racing teams enough for getting behind this weekend’s race — 13 drivers, including 10 of the top 11 points leaders, will have Nationwide Children’s Hospital represented on their cars.”

STEWART OUT FOR A WHILE WITH BROKEN LEG: Tony Stewart is at home resting his broken leg but it is uncertain when he will return to racing.

Stewart broke his right leg in an Aug. 5 sprint car race accident.

Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli gave an update on the driver/team owner at Michigan International Speedway on Friday.

“He’s supposed to be in bed and keep his leg elevated above his heart for the next seven days … just to keep the swelling and stuff of that nature down,” Zipadelli said.

Stewart will miss his second straight race NASCAR Sprint Cup race today because of the injury. Austin Dillon will drive in Stewart’s place again in the Pure Michigan 400.

“We’ve been working under the assumption that he’s out for the next month or so, or longer,” Zipadelli said. “He went to the doctor this week, he had a decent visit — no setbacks. … I saw him on Wednesday night, and we spent some time together.”