NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2007 Season Preview: Juan Pablo Montoya vs. All Other Rookies

Editor’s Note: Miss out on any of the season preview articles so far this week? No worries… just click on the links below to get to the prediction you want to see…

Day One/Car Of Tomorrow
Day Two/Toyota’s Impact on Nextel Cup
Day Three/What Teams Are Closing Up Shop?

Loyal Readers,

After an anxious two months of anticipation, the offseason is finally nearing an end! With Daytona testing a distant memory, it’s less than three short weeks before the engines come to life and the 2007 Nextel Cup season hits the ground running.

Before the cars take off, though, it’s time to take a look at the issues that’ll make a difference in what’s bound to be one of the most important years for the sport in recent history. With anything from talented rookies to Toyota’s entrance in the sport making headlines, there’s plenty of issues for the Frontstretch faithful to weigh in on. Be sure to check out this space all this week and next to get our writers’ predictions on what’s bound to be NASCAR’s biggest season yet!

Here’s Today’s Season Preview Topic: Juan Pablo Montoya may be the most hyped-up rookie in Nextel Cup history. Still, his limited stock car experience makes him somewhat of an unknown; is he capable of winning Rookie of the Year, and better yet, can he actually win a Cup race in his first season?

Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: While Juan Pablo was impressive in his first Cup start at Homestead, don’t be fooled; he still ended that race with his car in flames, and his Rookie of the Year bid won’t go much better in 2007. Montoya’s main rookie competitor, Paul Menard, has years of Busch Series experience under his belt, along with several Busch wins and a Nextel Cup top 10 in only a handful of starts at stock car racing’s top level.

With Chip Ganassi Racing consisting of two second-year drivers in David Stremme and Reed Sorenson as teammates to Montoya, veteran assistance for the Colombian will be hard to come by… a far cry from the help Menard will receive from Dale Earnhardt Jr. This is such a mismatch that if Montoya beats Menard for Rookie of the Year, that will be the upset… not the other way around as most people believe. Oh, and winning a race is out of the question. Completely.

Nikki Krone, Assistant Editor: Montoya has been getting better with every race in the Busch Series, but the Nextel Cup Series is a different animal. Montoya can win ROTY, but I think winning a race will be more difficult.

Toni Heffelfinger, Assistant Editor: If Montoya’s going to win, his best chance is obviously a road course. But then again, he’s proved he learns pretty fast. so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pull something off on an oval late in the year. Of course, he is driving Ganassi equipment, and that’s been a bit of a handicap in recent years for drivers WITH stock car experience. As for Rookie of the Year, though, it’s not going to happen for Montoya… not if DEI gives Menard equipment that is anywhere near decent. Menard has stock car experience and has proven he can be consistent in the Busch Series. That gives him a serious leg up on Montoya if he can just get decent cars.

Kim DeHaven, Public Relations Coordinator: Is Montoya capable? Sure! Is either scenario described above likely to happen? Nope.

Amy Henderson, Driver Interview Coordinator: Montoya is certainly capable of ROTY honors – what competition has he got? His equipment is the best of all the candidates, so he should win it based on that alone. As for winning a race, that’s a very tall order. Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray couldn’t do it, and while Montoya has shown that he can hold his own in a stock car, he hasn’t shown that he can take the equipment any farther than it’s capable of. It’s as good or better than DEI’s, though, and ROTY honors should be between Montoya and Menard for the taking.

Becca Gladden, Senior Writer: Anything “can” happen, but I would say that there is a greater likelihood of Montoya winning ROTY than winning a race. What will hamper JPM the most is the team he’s driving for at Ganassi.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: “Most hyped-up rookie in Cup history?” Give me a break! Montoya ain’t even close. Maybe in Colombia or where ever it is he hails from, but certainly not here! Does the name Earnhardt Jr. ring a bell?! “Most hyped up rookie in Cup history?” Really! Our editor must be tuned into the “All Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, all the time!” channel. Too funny. And no, he is not capable of winning a Cup race this year (or next).

Mike Neff, Senior Writer: There is no doubt Montoya is very hyped coming into the series. There is also no doubt Montoya has an incredible amount of talent. The biggest hurdle he’ll face is the difficulty that CGRFS has had over the past few seasons. In the second half of the season, though, the Ganassi teams usually make some great strides. Their short track program stepped it up quite a bit in 2006, as did their performance on intermediate tracks. If the cars are competitive, Montoya could certainly win a race and will be a very strong contender for the Rookie of the Year.

Cami Starr, Senior Writer: Ganassi didn’t fare too well last year after Mears got off to a hot start, and with Montoya’s limited experience in stock cars, I don’t see him making a big splash in his rookie year. That being said, this isn’t a very strong ROTY crop we have fighting for the title this season, so Montoya may still bring that home simply based on the lack of quality teams he’s going up against.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Contributor: The Nextel Cup Series in not easy; even seasoned guys like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. struggle from time to time. But take a guy like Montoya straight out of a Formula 1 car and stick him in a stock car and he’ll struggle 10 times worse, guaranteed. While the success Montoya had while racing F1 makes it easy to say he’ll do well, I don’t think it’ll be as easy as everyone wants to believe. A Nextel Cup field has 43 drivers while an F1 field had only 22. An F1 car also weighs considerably less than a stock car, making the handling completely different between the two series. Montoya’s personality isn’t helping much, either; check out the arrogance he showed after a rough outing in the Arizona Travel 200 Busch Series race this November:

It’s tough passing these guys — they seem like they don’t see you, they just sort of play dumb. When you run up front, the guy up front runs a lot cleaner, a lot smarter. The guys in the back are just too dumb. I’m trying to keep the car in one piece and it’s very hard, because, yes, I am a rookie — but no, I am not a rookie. I have probably more experience in this grade, I’ve driven more things than anybody here. I am being smart, I am trying not to cause any wrecks or anything, but it’s got to stop.

While I think Montoya may do well once he gets to the front of the pack, overall his inexperience and arrogance will hurt him during the 2007 season. I don’t foresee him winning more than once if at all.

Vito Pugliese, Contributor: There are a lot of naysayers who think that Juan Pablo will not be able to hack it down South with the circle-track guys, but I think otherwise. He is driving for longtime friend and car owner Chip Ganassi and will be given extra attention and every opportunity to succeed. NASCAR wants him to succeed as well, as he is the only foreign born competitor of any ethnic descent in the series. I see his attitude and personality endearing him to becoming a fan favorite. My dad, a longtime Chrysler fan, has already deemed him “Johnny Mopar.” Honestly, NASCAR needs Juan a lot more than Juan needs NASCAR. I think there is segment of the fanbase that will like his non-scripted-by-PR-department-responses and statements. Expect him to run up front in the restrictor-plate races, contend for road-course wins and run consistently well at the downforce tracks the second time around. There will probably be a few wadded-up cars in his rookie year, but Gordon went through 14 front clips his rookie year so that shouldn’t mean much. I believe he can put together enough strong runs to win rookie of the year, but if not, I see Menard surprising some people and taking home that distinction.

Meegan Sweeney, Contributor: I think with his lack of experience, a win for Montoya will be hard to come by. He was good in the Busch Series, but who knows what will happen with him on the short and intermediate tracks. I doubt he’ll win Rookie of the Year, either.

Tommy Thompson, Contributor: After discounting the start-up Toyota teams’ rookie roster of AJ Allmendinger and David Reutimann, who are sure to experience some setbacks not driver-related during the season, there are only three drivers that I see with a genuine chance of competing for the 2007 Rookie of the Year. They are: Menard with DEI in the No. 15, David Ragan in the very competitive No. 6 racecar vacated by Mark Martin, and the No. 42 CGRFS ride of Montoya’s. Of the three drivers, Montoya is the most mature driver, possessing the greatest proven talent despite his lack of stock car experience. His odds of winning ROTY honors are reasonable as a result.

As for Victory Lane, a win in 2007 is not impossible for Montoya, but certainly not expected. Whether Chip Ganassi Racing has stepped-up their program enough to give the No. 42 team, which has shown, at times, the ability to run up front, what Montoya needs to be victorious is unknown. However, Montoya’s best chance at winning in ’07 may rest with one of the 16 Car of Tomorrow races, where the field should be a little more equalized.

How do YOU think Montoya will fare in his first season in Nextel Cup? Feel free to offer your personal previews below in the comments section.

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