Kevin Rutherford · Monday May 13, 2013
Juan Pablo Montoya finished eighth in the Southern 500 this weekend.
That isn’t a result about which many fans probably thought much about post-race Saturday night. The brunt of the attention, and rightfully so, was directed toward Matt Kenseth’s third win of the season and to Kyle Busch’s late-race tangle with Kasey Kahne.
But Juan Pablo Montoya finished eighth in the Southern 500 this weekend.
Years ago, a Montoya top-10 finish would not have been much to write about. In the early part of his NASCAR career, the Colombian performed well much more often, hitting a peak in 2009 with 18 top 10s and a Chase berth, eventually finishing eighth in the standings.
However, in recent years, the stock value of Montoya — as well as his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team — has fallen. In a dismal 2012, Montoya and teammate Jamie McMurray combined for five top-10 finishes all season. Again, five all season combined. None of those were top 5s. Montoya’s best finish all season was eighth, twice. McMurray managed one spot better in seventh.
Fast forward to May, 2013. Now 11 races into the Cup season, the two teammates have equaled their total top-10 results from last year and have already eclipsed the mark of zero top 5s, after Montoya fought to a fourth at Richmond, a race which he likely would have won if not for a late caution.
This year so far has marked a definite increase in performance for both drivers after their dismal 2012 seasons. As a result, it’s safe to say that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is at least a little better than last year. In particular, Montoya is vastly improved.
Last year saw Montoya slot in 22nd in overall points with an average finish of 21.7 and 22 total laps led. On the surface, his 2013 isn’t actually going much better, with a current points spot of 22nd and an average finish of 22.5, but the former Formula One driver’s overall season results don’t exactly reflect the fact that the No. 42 Target car has actually been racing around the front quite a few times this year before running into bad luck.
That’s a real difference from last season, when the few times Montoya could have finished near the front at all were few and far between, whether he sealed the deal or not. Along with McMurray, the team attained also-ran status, one of the worst multi-car organizations to field entries in 2012.
When considering reasons for the increase in production this year, two in particular stand out, one being more plausible than the other. In one corner is a matter of power under one’s hood; the other, the pressure inside a driver’s head.
In November of last year, Earnhardt Ganassi announced it would no longer receive engines from the Earnhardt Childress engine program. Instead, the team would move to horsepower from fellow Chevrolet organization Hendrick Motorsports.
That’s important. Very important. Hendrick engines have been among the strongest in the Cup garage the last few years while Earnhardt Childress has lost — and continues to lose — its luster. Richard Childress Racing wasn’t a top-tier organization last year either, after all, and the team’s 2013 still hasn’t gotten off to a great start despite losing the necessity to supply motors to the Nos. 1 and 42.
For the other reason, check out the Nationwide Series, most notably the driver of the No. 32 for Turner Scott Motorsports. Kyle Larson is arguably the most buzzworthy young driver in NASCAR, rivaling the attention received by Joey Logano during his entrance into the sport a few years back. He’s also an Earnhardt Ganassi development driver, currently competing for TSM, a team that doesn’t have a Cup program.
All roads lead to Larson as an eventual Cup competitor; no doubt about that. The length of that road is a whole other question. Could be three years from now. Could be two. Could be next year. If Earnhardt Ganassi remains at two full-time teams, that provides definite motivation for its two current drivers. Perform, or the rookie takes your ride.
It’s likely those two reasons that have buoyed the relative success of Montoya and McMurray so far this season. Of course, five top-10 finishes total still isn’t much to brag about, but it’s certainly a step up from the previous season. Now, Montoya is becoming a more common face at the front of the field, rather than appearing only when he’s getting lapped by the leader.
At the age of 37, Montoya is probably nearing the end of his driving career; as such, a season akin to 2009 may no longer be in the cards. That said, the guy is actually racing as though he believes he could rekindle that kind of magic. In 2012, the Colombian seemed complacent at times, resigned to running around the back. This year, things appear to have changed.
Now, we will wait and see if he and McMurray can keep up their decent start to the season. Montoya, in particular, has performed well on some of the circuit’s shorter tracks. If that continues to be the case, tracks like Dover and Loudon are fairly intriguing, not to mention the road course races, at which he has the only two wins of his NASCAR career.
At Richmond a few weeks ago, Montoya nearly added to that two-win tally — and would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that pesky late-race caution.
With the way he’s driving in 2013, particularly in the last few weeks, one can’t help but be optimistic about him getting another chance near the front. This time, he may emerge a bit more lucky.
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