CONCORD, N.C. - Juan Pablo Montoya posted the second slowest qualifying lap out of 48 entries and dejectedly climbed from his car.
"What did you expect?" he asked. "Seriously, what did you expect?"
Montoya is still reeling from the midweek firing of Jimmy Elledge, a personnel decision that's given the former Formula One driver his third crew chief in a month. Frustrated that his opposition to the dismissal went unheeded, Montoya is now worried that his team is ill-prepared for Sunday's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Because new crew chief Brian Pattie had just two days to dissect Elledge's setup on the No. 42 Dodge, changes were made on the fly during a difficult Thursday practice session that saw Montoya post the 45th slowest speed. It didn't improve during qualifying, when Montoya was 47th out of 48 cars and will start next-to-last in the Coca-Cola 600.
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Team owner Chip Ganassi sympathizes with Montoya's frustration, but said Elledge's dismissal was warranted after the crew chief engaged in a heated argument with competition director Steve Hmiel during last week's All-Star race.
"We had an employee step over the line, and I'm sorry it happened because I like Jimmy personally, but it had to be done," Ganassi said. "I know Juan is upset and he comes out on the short end of this deal.
"I apologize for that, but unfortunately it was unavoidable collateral damage."
Elledge declined to comment on his dismissal, but Montoya has been vocal in his opposition of the decision. Elledge had only been atop his pit box for four races, dating back to an earlier crew chief swap that sent Donnie Wingo over to Reed Sorenson's slumping team.
"They told me 'We are thinking of getting rid of Jimmy' and I said 'Don't do it,' " Montoya said earlier this week. "Next thing I knew, they did. That's what happened. You are going to have to ask somebody else about it, because I wasn't involved in this."
The hot-tempered Montoya has rode a wave of emotions this week over the direction of his race team. The Colombian had a successful first season in NASCAR after making the highly publicized jump from Formula One, but this second year has not been as smooth.
Montoya has just one top-10 finish — a second-place in Elledge's debut race at Talladega — and he's currently 16th in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
Ganassi acknowledged the validity Montoya's concern, while insisting that he's working hard behind the scenes to stabilize his NASCAR organization.
"I'm concerned about the forward progress of my teams every single day, and I work on it every single day," Ganassi said. "Just because the whole world doesn't know what I'm doing, doesn't mean I'm not doing anything at all."
The turmoil in stock cars comes when Ganassi's open-wheel organization is soaring. Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon start first and second in Sunday's Indianapolis 500, and both drivers give Ganassi a tremendous shot to win the race for the second time as a car owner. Montoya gave him his first Indy 500 victory in 2000.
Wheldon said the disparity between the two organizations must be infuriating to Ganassi, who has a temperament similar to Montoya's.
"I'm sure it bugs the hell out of Chip, knowing what a professional he is," Wheldon said. "You know how motivated Chip is. He is a really determined individual and I know it irks him. I'm sure every time he goes to bed at night knowing that team's not as competitive as he would like it to be, it must tear him up inside."
Tony Stewart, who has two NASCAR titles and one Indy Racing League championship, said it's unfair to compare Ganassi's two programs because it's like "apples and oranges." But through past dealings with Ganassi, Stewart knows the car owner won't rest until he gets all his programs in sync. In addition to the successful IRL operation, Ganassi's Grand-Am operation leads the driver and team Daytona prototype standings.
"All his programs are successful, and (NASCAR) is the one piece of the equation they haven't got right," Stewart said. "And I guarantee you it's eating him up. He's the type of guy, who I don't care if he's got five divisions of cars, if four of them are winning races and championships, it's going to eat at him.
"He won't stop until he gets it right."
That's what Montoya is hoping for, but the driver must first make it through a chaotic month with a car owner to whom he's deeply loyal. He left F1 specifically to drive for Ganassi, who gave him the CART ride that ultimately propelled Montoya to superstardom.
"I feel bad for (Montoya)," Wheldon said. "But (Ganassi) is not going to let that go on forever, and he's going to do whatever it takes to fix that and that's why you're proud to drive for his team.
"There's a lot of team owners out there that say that they'll do everything in their power they can to give you the equipment necessary to win, and not many of them can actually go through with that."