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Formula One's Montoya Will Join NASCAR

July 10, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

In a stunning move for Formula One and NASCAR, driver Juan Pablo Montoya is giving up the streets of Monte Carlo for Talladega nights.

Montoya, a seven-time Formula One winner, former CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, announced Sunday he would leave open-wheel racing next year to take over the No. 42 NASCAR Nextel Cup stock car, replacing the departing Casey Mears in the Dodge.

Montoya, 30, will join his former boss, Chip Ganassi, who owns the Cup car with Felix Sabates. Montoya drove for Ganassi when he won the Indy 500 in 2000 and when he won the 1999 championship as a rookie in CART, now called the Champ Car World Series.

"We are thrilled to be getting a driver of this caliber," Ganassi said in a statement. "Juan Pablo is one of the best race car drivers in the world."

Montoya said he had considered the move to NASCAR "for quite some time, but the opportunity had to be right. I've known and worked with Chip for a number of years, and this situation could not be better for me."

After his first stint with Ganassi, Montoya moved to Formula One in 2001 and is now driving for Team McLaren Mercedes with teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

But their futures there were uncertain because reigning Formula One champion Fernando Alonso plans to move next year to Team McLaren Mercedes from Team Renault.

Many consider Formula One the elite of motor sports, because of the cars' technology and its format of racing on curvy road courses in exotic locales. No driver before Montoya had left F1 to join the good ol' boys of NASCAR, who race mostly on oval tracks.

But Montoya's move underlines how NASCAR's soaring popularity is becoming alluring to drivers in other forms of racing. "I am so happy to be entering the fastest-growing racing league in the world," Montoya said.

Before winning Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Cup star Jeff Gordon said, "It's a great thing for the sport to have such a world-class driver want to compete" in NASCAR. "I welcome him and respect him for accepting the challenge."

There also is speculation that others might follow Montoya. Last week, for instance, former Formula One champion and Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve, 35, expressed interest in a NASCAR career.

The arrival of Montoya, a native of Colombia, also could help NASCAR, which has predominantly white male drivers, deflect criticism that it lacks diversity.

And for Ganassi, hiring a Formula One driver to replace Mears, 28, is a bold step for improving the fortunes of his Dodge team.

Mears, a member of the famous Mears racing family of Bakersfield, began his Cup career with Ganassi in 2003, but has never won a Cup race. Mears announced last month that he was moving next year to the Chevrolet team of Hendrick Motorsports.

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