The Frontstretch: The Closest Thing to Earnhardt...Is Named Montoya? by Amy Henderson -- Friday October 16, 2009

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The Closest Thing to Earnhardt...Is Named Montoya?

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday October 16, 2009


NASCAR misses Dale Earnhardt. It’s been true since Earnhardt’s death in 2001, but Earnhardt’s posthumous election to the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a deep reminder of that loss. Its repercussions in NASCAR are deep—deep enough to have likely changed the face of NASCAR, and devastating for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., once a promising and elite race team, now reduced to a merger with another mediocre team just to survive. But the loss is most keenly felt on the racetrack, where, many fans are quick to lament, a bunch of boring, vanilla-flavored robots drive too carefully, too nicely—and if they don’t, well, then NASCAR reminds them of their place posthaste.

NASCAR needs a driver like Earnhardt.

NASCAR sorely needs an aggressor who openly admits he is the aggressor. We need someone who isn’t afraid to go WFO all the time, on the track and on camera, with no apologies, no thoughts of political correctness, no fear. In short, racing needs a bad boy. But, if you really look…

NASCAR has a driver a lot like Earnhardt.

No one can ever replace Dale Earnhardt, but Juan Pablo Montoya encompasses many of the traits that made the Man In Black wildly popular.

It’s not Kyle Busch, whose brashness drew a few comparisons earlier this year. Busch has a bad attitude and an incredible sense of entitlement that leads him to do some overaggressive things on the racetrack, but in general, he doesn’t cross the line in the car like he could, and well, Dale Earnhardt never stomped off to have a temper tantrum after a bad race. Can you even imagine…? Busch reminds me more of a young Darrell Waltrip—an immensely talented driver who can’t quite stop running his mouth when maybe he shouldn’t.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who can certainly be aggressive and brash. Stewart is too mercurial—one day the boy next door, the next the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It isn’t Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has tried too long and to hard to be his own man to need that kind of comparison anyway. It’s not Jeff Gordon, though perhaps it should be—Gordon will walk the walk on track, but when the time comes to talk the talk afterward, he becomes mild as milquetoast.

The driver is Juan Pablo Montoya.

No, really. Think about it. Strip away the Formula 1 and open wheel interloper tag. Throw out the backward xenophobia. Consider the driver for a minute. I mean, really consider the driver.

Montoya is fearless on the racetrack, and he will put a racecar where it hadn’t ought to fit—as in, most drivers wouldn’t think twice about putting it there. And yet, he can make it work. Is Montoya as good as Dale Earnhardt? Well, no—and he’s not as experienced, either. Montoya has been in a stock car for just under three seasons, while Dale Earnhardt wheeled one for more then three decades. But the fearlessness is unmistakable. It’s raw, and therefore sometimes misguided, but make no mistake—this man is not afraid of you. Or anyone else.

Montoya also has no qualms about real estate battles. If he wants the piece you are on, he will let you know. And then, if you don’t take the hint, he will claim eminent domain and take it from you. That might mean a tire donut, and it might mean he puts both of you in the wall. But he’s going to push the issue, and push it hard.

What Earnhardt knew and Montoya is still very much learning is the finesse that goes into driving a stock car. Earnhardt very rarely did anything on the racetrack without an express purpose, and if his purpose was getting another driver’s position…well, he was going to get it, one way or the other. Montoya isn’t that good yet—he often gets it, but he also sometimes ends up hurting himself as well, either getting caught up in a melee of his own making or simply having to back out. The talent is there; the attitude is there, but the skill doesn’t quite match it yet.

The other thing that Earnhardt knew and Montoya is still working on is that you only have to pass one car at a time. Watching Earnhardt was like watching a big cat stalk his prey—methodical, cold, and cruelly efficient. One at a time, he would find the next car he needed to pass and pick them off. Montoya still has the tendency to want to pass all of them at once, by sheer speed. And that’s not always wise—or pretty.

But Montoya is learning, and while he learns, he remains fearless, aloof, cold as ice on the track, but off of it he is a bit of a mystery—sometimes snappish and short, but often outgoing and funny. He has a quick, wicked sense of humor and can zing you before you know what hit you. He has a softer side, as well—just watch him with his kids sometimes.

What NASCAR and its fans lost in February 2001 is deep and irreplaceable. No driver will ever be exactly what Dale Earnhardt was. But perhaps fans should be embracing Juan Pablo Montoya a bit more—he’s fearless, brash, and occasionally, he drives a little like the Man in Black. He is, and make no mistake about it, one of the best drivers ever to climb inside a racecar. NASCAR needs a bad boy—and they have one. By rights, Montoya should be hugely popular, and why he isn’t is somewhat of a mystery. But he embraces the bad boy role, and that is what makes him so refreshing. He’s no Earnhardt, but he’s the closest thing out there—and he’s no slouch. And he’s sure as hell fun to watch.

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©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Todd Crane
10/16/2009 06:26 AM

The Day the MUSIC died, Buddy Holly, and Dale Earnhardt. NA$CAR has been floundering since that Feb. day in 2001, just look at the shape of the sport since then. They all look the same, cars that is, the drivers seem to be out of the same mold, with a few exceptions, JPM being one for sure, and NA$CAR won’t even do anything about it. No wonder we’ve lost fans by the tons. Will they ever wake up? I don’t think so. Give me the good old days in NASCAR!

10/16/2009 09:03 AM

When Earnhardt spoke, NA$CAR listened. Now,there is nobody with enough influence to make a difference. The drivers no longer have a voice and is controlled by by Baby France who has no realo interest in racing.

Carl D.
10/16/2009 09:03 AM


I’m afraid there aren’t too many fans that are going to agree with you on this one. While JPM may share some driving habits with Dale Sr, Earnhardt was a good ‘ole boy from the heart of the Nascar’s traditional stomping grounds. When he wasn’t racing, he was hunting and fishing. He came up through the ranks and paid some dues. That kind of guy appeals to the traditional Nascar fan. No matter what JPM does on the track, he’ll always be considered an outsider by a large part of the Nascar fanbase. That may not be a politically correct observation, but it is an honest one.

10/16/2009 09:34 AM

“Montoya is fearless on the racetrack, and he will put a racecar where it hadn’t ought to fit—as in, most drivers wouldn’t think twice about putting it there. And yet, he can make it work…the fearlessness is unmistakable. It’s raw, and therefore sometimes misguided, but make no mistake—this man is not afraid of you. Or anyone else…”

Sounds like Kyle to me….to bad your hatred of Kyle gets in the way.

10/16/2009 09:37 AM

I can’t remember Juan taking another driver out without regard for other drivers.

That’s a big reason Dale got as many wins as he did. That’s not racin’, that’s derby.

10/16/2009 11:02 AM

Brad K is the next intimidator, but not for a couple of years until he gets back in a Chevy,

10/16/2009 11:17 AM

Your kidding right? There are writers on this very site who think tracks north of the Mason Dixon should not be “allowed” a race and you wonder why people are not into JPM.

I actually like the guy. I think him being in the sport is good for it. He will open up the sport to some new people who are Motorsports fans of other wheeled types.

Plus he is a little quick tempered and a tad nuts which I always think is a plus.

10/16/2009 12:16 PM

Not so sure he is in the mold (or area code) with Dale Sr, but I have come to like the guy. JPM is aggressive and always has somethign interesting to say, which is more than I can say for JJ, he is about as interesting as an accounting seminar!

Bad Wolf
10/16/2009 12:52 PM

Comparing JPM to Dale Earnhardt is like saying Busch Lite is just as good as Sam Adams.

Dales first full time season was 1979, and his first win was at Bristol in only his 16th start. That year he had 11 top 5’s and won rookie of the year.

In 1980 he beat Cale Yarborough for the Winston Cup, and is the only driver to have ever won rookie of the year and a Cup title in consecutive years.

What did JPM do in his first 2 years behind the wheel of a “Stock” car?

10/16/2009 01:40 PM

Montoya’s first Cup win was his 17th start.

I like this guy, and I hope he wins the title this year. He’s no Dale, but that doesn’t mean he’s not fun to watch.

Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to see Teresa at the head table?

The Turnip!
10/16/2009 03:32 PM

A COMPLETE TRAVESTY comparing Dale Sr. to Juan Pablum Montoya!

How low can you go?

At least Sr. could speak english!

10/16/2009 04:33 PM

I’m a southern-born, southern-bred white boy. I find the two drivers very similar. They do not suffer fools gladly and their confidence was backed up by their skill. Amy, I think I would have never drawn the comparison on my own, but I believe you are probably more right-on than most of the naysayers will admit. Good writing…

Carl D.
10/16/2009 07:02 PM


I was gonna saay the same thing about Brad K. but figured I’d be run off the Frontstretch. You’re a braver soul than me, and you’ve got a darned good eye for driving talent.

10/17/2009 01:48 AM

You missed it by a damned mile, Sis


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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