Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday March 19, 2007
Sunday afternoon in Atlanta saw Juan Pablo Montoya reach a new high in Nextel Cup. On an oval, no less, Montoya scored his first Top 5 finish on stock car’s highest level, making some amazing moves during the Kobalt Tools 500 on the way to a fifth place finish in his Chip Ganassi Dodge. Staying focused for the entire 500 miles, Montoya displayed impressive skill in completing a climb up the ladder far faster than anyone ever predicted he could do on an oval track. But before showering all your praise on the 31-year-old Colombian, you need to take a step back in this aerodynamic era of NASCAR and ask yourself this simple fact: Is Montoya really that good, or is Chip Ganassi Racing simply getting their program to a point where they can be competitive once again, putting their driver in position to be successful?
Now, there is no doubt that Montoya is an outstanding talent. He has already proven he can drive a stock car on a road course, winning the Busch Race in Mexico after a controversial late race pass of teammate Scott Pruett. Having run open wheel cars on ovals in the past, Montoya does have some prior experience on the circle tracks, too, although it pales in comparison to some of his rookie compatriots. Still, it’s been Montoya who’s proven he can adapt to ovals in full bodied cars quicker than anyone else, staying out of trouble in both Busch and Cup while learning the basics of how to handle his race car. Now that he's come home with a Top 5 finish in just his fifth Nextel Cup start, there’s no doubt that Juan Pablo is going to have the ability to run well wherever he races. But in order for any driver to be truly competitive, he needs to have some quality equipment to work with. That’s where Chip Gansssi Racing has come together behind him, stepping up their program at exactly the right time for a rookie with unlimited potential.
That Ganassi is on the verge such a massive comeback towards the top of the sport sparks memories as to how solid a program they once had in the first place. Ganassi has been in Cup racing since 2001, forming a partnership with Felix Sabates in the process of buying into his two existing Cup teams. The peak of the team’s success came within those first two years, winning five races on the way towards establishing themselves as newcomer Dodge’s top Cup organization. Along with Sterling Marlin scoring their only Top 10 points finish in 2001, the team was poised to win the championship in 2002 with Marlin’s No. 40 car until a savage crash at Kansas left their driver sitting on the sidelines with a neck injury. Since that moment in time, CGRFS has never been the same, their last win registered with Marlin’s fill-in Jamie McMurray in October of that same year.
But after over four years of struggling with mediocrity, without a single member of their now three-car team finishing higher than 11th in points, Ganassi has turned a corner. Ganassi has reengineered their short track cars, becoming quite competitive on the small circuits on the schedule during 2006. Late last year, they also began to show some strength on the intermediate tracks, strength that has carried over to tracks like Atlanta, where all three CGRFS drivers came home with Top 13 finishes. Whether it’s a sign of maturity from the organization or just a matter of finally getting the right people in the right places, the team seems to have turned the corner toward respectability.
Ganassi’s driver stable, while young, is also beginning to show signs of improvement, giving Montoya solid teammates to work with as he learns the ropes of the series. Reed Sorenson is still a young, raw talent, but he has finally started to finish some races and begin to show signs of racing maturity at 21. With a strong 9th place run at Atlanta this weekend, it probably won't be long before Sorenson finally breaks through and starts competing for wins.
But it’s been Montoya’s second teammate that may have really turned the biggest surprise of all. David Stremme has shown flashes of brilliance during his career, but he was never really in competitive equipment that allowed him to truly showcase his talents. Now that CGRFS is finally running like a team that can compete for wins, Stremme is making good on his chance to live up to the hype. Currently, he’s 11th in the standings, the highest ranked of Ganassi’s three wheelmen.
That brings us back to Montoya. Juan Pablo has been a proven race car driver at the highest levels of the sport. He is also a former Indianapolis 500 winner and CART series Champion, and while he never won a F1 championship, he did win seven F1 races in a long and prosperous career in that series. Juan Pablo can obviously drive a race car, but learning to drive a car with fenders on it was supposedly going to be a difficult task that could take an entire season to master. But the fact of the matter is, Montoya has run well right out of the box. He has been quite competitive in Busch and ARCA races, with the checkered flag on the road course in Mexico the icing on the cake. With this weekend’s Top 5 finish at an intermediate track, Montoya is quickly proving he will be a force in the Cup series from the outset of his stock car career.
With that having been said, while Montoya is a great driver he could never be competitive in cars that are substandard. The fact that Ganassi has turned the corner, putting out equipment now capable of running up front, provides the extra boost that makes Montoya a threat to win before the year is out. That’s not just on a road course, either; Montoya and his No. 42 team are quickly developing into a possible checkered flag contender on ovals.
Montoya deserves a lot of credit for that turnaround…but just as much should go to the team he drives for. Chip Ganassi has made great strides over the past year, and the marriage of the two could very well turn out to be the surprise story of the season.
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