Summer Bedgood · Monday June 3, 2013
If you’re anything like me, you’re skeptical. Skeptical of the people you meet, predictions that are made, and expectations others have. You question anything and everything, accepting nothing at face value.
If you’re like me … you expect the unexpected, or at least hope for it. But when Juan Pablo Montoya exited pit road first, after the final pit stop of the day in Dover, I couldn’t help but scoff when Darrell Waltrip chimed in during the broadcast.
“That [call is] what won,” claimed the veteran analyst with confidence, “The [Nationwide Series] race yesterday!’”
“Oh, please,” I responded back out loud, knowing full well that he wasn’t aware of my pretentious opinions. “Montoya won’t win this race.”
How could he? Jimmie Johnson would be right beside him on the restart, and better drivers, with four fresh tires were right there up front, ready to spring into action. There was just no way. Montoya was a sitting duck.
With about five laps to go, though, I was getting slightly nervous. Regardless of your opinions about that penalty NASCAR issued against Jimmie Johnson, for a restart violation, it all but dangled the keys to the castle towards the driver of the No. 42. Montoya, using clean air and quality driving to his advantage looked well on his way to a first career oval win (he has two career victories on road courses).
Though Tony Stewart eventually passed him for the victory, a statement was made. It was a near-miss for the open-wheel superstar-turned NASCAR wannabe, a runner-up performance his best on left-only tracks since Pocono in August, 2009. It’s also the second time this season – adding in Richmond, late April – where Montoya has showed up, unexpectedly in contention down the stretch.
So while I didn’t expect Montoya to win the race, I wasn’t altogether surprised to see him running so well. After all, he and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray have raised eyebrows this season, especially considering that the last few years have been such a struggle for that team.
Perhaps that’s putting it lightly. Once a Chase bubble contender, this fully-sponsored operation, with the funding to run among NASCAR’s best slid to rock bottom. McMurray only had three top 10s in 2012, a decrease from four top 10s in 2011 … and that was in 36 races. Montoya only had two all last season, though he did perform better than McMurray in 2011 with eight top 10s.
2013, by comparison has been a series of small steps to make their way back to the top. Both drivers have three top 10s, in just 13 races and the average finish between the two of them is around 19th. Newly-purchased Hendrick horsepower has held up, resulting in better speed and stronger qualifying runs as well.
Even then, stats on paper aren’t always indicative of performance. There have been many times this year where I noticed either or both of these drivers running in the top 10 for a time. I remember watching the race at Martinsville a few weeks ago, seeing McMurray up towards the front, and wondering what sort of fuel mileage issue was going on that he was up there. Turns out that he was just a top-10 driver in a top-10 car.
Similarly, I know there were several times in the first five races that I noticed Montoya running better than expected, like in Phoenix, where he led 12 laps. His total of 98 is modest, but better than two-time winner Kevin Harvick although it hasn’t helped him in the point standings, where he’s a ho-hum 22nd.
I know what some of you are thinking. These results are nothing but average and mediocre; they’re definitely not worth anything of note.
My point, though, is not that EGR is running great or even good. My point is that there is definitely some impressive improvement from both drivers this season, one that my fellow Frontstretch contributors made note of in Mirror Driving a few weeks ago. They still have room for growth, in terms of raw speed and consistency, but it’s not like the talent to do so isn’t there. In fact, Montoya especially, despite his aggressive driving style remains someone his rivals know can be a force.
“I’ve always liked Juan,” said winner Stewart Sunday. “I’ve always respected [him]. And I think he’s come a long way in this series about the mind-set… there’s people that you enjoy racing and that you hope you have that battle with when it comes to racing for a win. Juan is on that list of guys that I respect and would want to be in that scenario with.”
He also has a lot to still prove. Montoya has forever been a wrecking ball of controversy, nothing but a laughing stock amongst stock car purists since making the switch in 2007. Though he is well accomplished in other forms of racing, such as Formula 1 — and is regarded as one of the best — his biggest claim to fame in NASCAR is crashing a jet dryer. That’s hardly worth celebrating, even though he has had short flashes of success.
Similarly, Jamie McMurray has really only been relevant one season of his career: 2010. That year, he won three races — two of which were the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 — and essentially set the world on fire with some unexpected surprises elsewhere. Even then, he failed to make the Chase and was underwhelming at best at the end of the year, struggling to live up to lofty expectations ever since. A man who set a record for winning right off the bat, capturing his second Cup Series start while subbing for Sterling Marlin in 2002 has yet to make the postseason in ten tries.
So though it doesn’t look like either Montoya or McMurray will be major contenders for the title, their “strong for them” start to the year has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It’ll make choices difficult for ownership, which has hotshot Kyle Larson waiting in the wings without the amount of sponsorship necessary to expand to three cars, at least right now. This duo’s success may not only save one or both their jobs down the line; it could lead to some successful expansion and financial support.
But employment isn’t the only reason they race. It’s contending for victories and championships, a process where they seem to feel like there is still more room to grow.
“We got two top fives in about a month, near misses [for] wins and I think they are coming,” said Montoya after Dover. “I’ve said this before: You have got to start running [with] Top-5s, Top-10s to be able to get wins, to give yourself a shot.”
Perhaps that is what we should be watching from EGR: progression. Though they won’t be Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports anytime soon, there is always room for some “dark horses” in the sport, and perhaps Montoya and McMurray are working their way towards that spot once again.
Regardless, their resurgence has been noticeable this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them in Victory Lane by November.
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