Well, don’t just stand there
Say nice things to me
Cause I’ve been cheated, I’ve been wronged
(Push – Matchbox 20)
Scott Pruett got out of his car and stumbled for words. With less than nine laps left, he’d seen his chances for victory go up in smoke south of the border, and the creator of said “smoke” was none other than his own teammate. Breaking NASCAR’s modern-era code of “Every man for himself, except if you’re near another car that’s being paid for by your owner,” Juan Pablo Montoya had taken Pruett’s Juicy Fruit Dodge, chewed up the gum and spit it out on the side of the road course, spinning him en route to a win amongst a raucous pro-Montoya crowd in Mexico City. Where there’s smoke, there’s always fire, and Pruett would have liked nothing more than to get fired up in front of the man who cost him a chance at Victory Lane. The fact that he’d won the Rolex 24 at Daytona with the same man one month earlier was no consolation to the frustration of losing a trophy Pruett would have loved to lose out on fair and square.
“That was just no good, low, nasty dirty driving,” said Pruett in a post-race TV interview that was G-rated compared to the swear words he used later to describe how politely Montoya left him hanging. “He was faster than me, we could (have worked) it out, he could go. But you don’t take each other out, that’s just bad driving.”
Well, Scott can agonize over it all he wants, but that bad driving was rewarded with a trophy in Victory Lane. Montoya could apologize till the cows come home, and his crew can cry themselves a river (Brad Parrott was so emotional he looked like he was about to bawl after the contact), but the bottom line is the win-at-all-costs mentality Montoya represents left him shining in the spotlight. Of course, in the winners’ circle the driver uttered all the usual apologies you get out of a scenario like the one that was caused; I didn’t mean to do it, I feel bad that it happened, and I wish things could have turned out differently. Well, you can draw your own conclusions, but one look at Montoya facing a crowd that seemed ready to charge the track and form a giant mosh pit in the man’s honor and it hardly seemed he was apologetic. Perhaps ecstatic and relieved were more appropriate words to use for those defining moments in which Montoya basked in the glory of his own popularity.
“I’ve never met a driver that puts so much pressure on himself like he does,” said Ganassi’s minority owner Felix Sabates of his driver on ESPN’s NASCAR Countdown. “He’s so competitive. Yesterday, he missed the pole by just a fraction and he was very upset after that. Threw his glove down on the ground. I like that; I like to see someone with a fire in him. He wants to win, he doesn’t want to lose.”
That’s not a surprise, for after years of success in every level of motorsports he’s competed in, Montoya’s developed both the attitude and understanding that he’s the best. It’s the ego most superstars possess in order to advance themselves to the next level; some keep it under wraps, others like Montoya wear it like a proud badge, but rest assured, all the top athletes need to have it to make sure they stay head over heels on top of everyone else. Defying expectations quicker than Al Gore could get applauded at the Oscars last week, Montoya has taken a laundry list of goals and gone full speed ahead as if he’d skipped from kindergarten straight to high school graduation. Race competitively in NASCAR’s version of baseball AAA, the Busch Series, with minimal experience in stock cars? Check. Lead laps extensively in a race as a rookie in Nextel Cup? Check (Montoya paced the field for much of his Gatorade Duel 150 at Daytona). Win a race in one of NASCAR’s top-three series? Check, effective Sunday afternoon. All of this got crossed off the list, of course, with less than a dozen stock car racing starts on the resume of the 31-year-old Colombian.
That type of hurried rise through the ranks of the sport, at least on paper, doubtless will have some anointing Montoya with titles he doesn’t quite deserve yet. Already, I’ve seen colleagues around the ‘net and on television anointing him the “New Dale Earnhardt Sr.” Others have him listed as the most talented rookie to set foot on NASCAR soil.
Well, let’s hold on a second. The problem with the checklist above is it doesn’t let you delve deeper, make comparisons and divulge details about just how Colombia’s most talented truly stands in the NASCAR record books. Over in the “major leagues” of the sport, Montoya remains winless, losing out on the record for the quickest rookie to win a race in Nextel Cup; that honor stays with Jamie McMurray, who won in his second start back in 2002. In fact, in three Nextel Cup starts, potential hasn’t turned into performance for Montoya; after finishing a pedestrian 19th and 26th, he’s not even leading the rookie standings, as that honor goes to David Ragan. Even Montoya himself admitted after the race he needs a win on ovals before respect is truly earned amongst his peers, and nothing he’s done has lessened the notion that a victory there is at least a year, maybe two away.
Still, that’s not to take anything away from what the man just accomplished; even if the No. 42 Dodge hadn’t bowled over the leader towards the end of the race, Montoya would have likely won anyways, as his car was clearly the fastest on the track at the end. But even Sunday’s performance comes with a bit of a sticky note; finishing first a race in which half the drivers entered don’t run more than one or two races a year in any of NASCAR’s top-three series isn’t what I would tab a quality win. It’s the equivalent of trying to beat Tennessee Tech as a way of impressing the NCAA basketball tournament committee. If you get a blowout win, that’s great, but I wouldn’t go around showing off afterwards. Overaggressive victories like that aren’t helpful in the respect department, either; as it was, half the drivers in the field thought Montoya was jumping the gun on restarts and driving more like a bull with horns than a professional with years of experience making both and left and right turns.
Which gets us back to Pruett, the most frustrated driver of all. It’s a man who has done nothing but give his heart and soul to Ganassi’s road-course program with the minimal reward of two Cup races in return, so you can’t help but feel for him; I guess this is what you get nowadays for being the good guy. Pruett was clearly wronged Sunday, and there’s nothing that can be done to change that. But as he leaves the chaos of the race’s ending behind Monday morning, I’ve got some advice for him on some things he should look forward to.
They’re called Las Vegas and Atlanta. No Ganassi car finished higher than ninth at either track last year, with seven finishes outside the top 20 in nine starts. Throw a rookie into that scenario, even one with incredible potential, and you’re likely to see someone crash back down to earth fairly quickly.
So, don’t worry Scott, what goes around comes around. When Montoya hits the wall on an oval sometime soon, expect one of his teammates to be smiling a little on his couch on the living room, and some media types to be retracting statements they ran with just a bit too quickly.