But where, exactly, is Juan these days? After Sunday’s 19th-place finish, two laps down, it’s not a bad question – because for most of this year, he’s been utterly anonymous. In fact, the start of the open-wheel convert’s sophomore season has been as bland as his rookie campaign was colorful.
Following the conclusion of Montoya’s eventful 2007, car owner Chip Ganassi was optimistic about the prospects of the No. 42 headed into 2008. As he put it: “I don’t want to say ‘Chase or bust,’ but… Chase or bust.” Ganassi hasn’t backed away from those comments; but after the seventh race of the season and no top 10s, things aren’t looking pretty. After running as high as second in the late stages of the Daytona 500, Montoya faded to finish 32nd – the last car on the lead lap – and things haven’t been hitting on all cylinders since. Another ho-hum finish at Texas Sunday also reversed what had been a gentle upward curve in results for Montoya. He was 20th in California, 19th in Vegas, 16th in Atlanta, 15th at Bristol and 13th two weeks ago at the little ol’ paperclip in Martinsville. But Sunday’s 19th-place finish reversed the gradual incline, and certainly put Ganassi’s preseason comments into stark perspective. In fact, the passionate car owner was hardly complimentary of his stock car operation when questioned at the IRL weekend in St. Petersburg, threatening major changes within his operation if things don’t start improving – and fast.
So, with the pressure on, have the Chase chances already gone bust for Montoya? Well, he’s 135 points (and six spots) out of a playoff position, and you only need to look at the drivers above him who are on the outside looking in (Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are 13th-16th, respectively) to know that making the Chase is going to require a stunning spell of fine form. In this crazy season, one thing is already clear, and that is the competition is going to be even more intense than ever. A high finish of 13th for Montoya is simply not going to get the job done in a season where 12th-place points man Kasey Kahne‘s already collected four top-10 finishes to his credit. The advantage Hendrick Motorsports had last season is all but erased, and RCR and Joe Gibbs Racing – not to mention Roush Fenway – have all raised their game to a similar level. For Montoya to force his way into Chase contention, he will have to outrun drivers from all four mega-teams; and while his equipment is good, it’s not that good.
But if anyone can reverse the trend and make a run at the top 12, it’s Montoya. There are after all few drivers who have as glittering and varied a driving resume. The man has won in Formula 1, Indy cars, Grand Am prototype cars and stock cars; the only other driver to have done so is Mario Andretti. Some of Montoya’s most prestigious victories include the Indianapolis 500 at his first attempt, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Rolex 24, again upon making his debut. It can be argued that the Colombian’s decision to defect from F1 in 2006 was more a question of expediency; his contract with McLaren was expiring at the end of the season and it was unlikely he was going to get a quality ride. (In F1, even more than NASCAR, you’re absolutely stuffed without top-level equipment). So, when Montoya announced his intentions, there were many both in the F1 garage and in the media who opined that NASCAR was just an easy way out of a tough situation. Little did they know.
Montoya’s deal with Chip Ganassi was announced in June 2006, but it was not until October that he ran his first competitive race. Driving in the ARCA Series at Talladega (of all places) he qualified second, led the first nine laps and finished third in a rain-shortened race. He ran the last four Nationwide Series races thereafter with a top finish of 11th in his first race at Memphis before successfully qualifying 29th for the final race of the Cup season at Homestead. Montoya was running just outside the top 10 in that race on lap 251 when Ryan Newman, who he had tussled with all day, gave the Colombian a “welcome to NASCAR” shove into the outside wall as payback for an earlier wreck – causing the back of Montoya’s car to burst violently into flames. It was, by any standards, quite the debut; but nothing less than was expected from a man not world-renowned at keeping his temper in check.
While Montoya’s 2006 cameo was memorable, 2007 proved to be even more so; if you’re in any doubt of that, just Youtube his contretemps with Kevin Harvick at Watkins Glen. A cursory glance at the statistics shows a respectable “Rookie of the Year” 20th-place finish in the standings; discounting the win at Infineon, he had two more top fives and three other top-10 finishes. But as the struggles of the other open-wheel drivers in 2008 have proved, Montoya punched above his weight – both literally and figuratively. It took him just three races to pick up his maiden Nationwide Series victory with a barnstorming performance at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico; in that one, his desire to win was so evident that with eight laps to go, he all but ran over his teammate Scott Pruett to take the lead, and ultimately the checkered flag. Two weeks later, back in the Cup Series Montoya ran the high line at Atlanta (a track he was seeing for the first time) to a fifth-place finish – his first career top five in just his sixth start at the Cup level.
13 races later, Montoya picked up his inaugural Sprint Cup Series victory on the road course in Sonoma; but the race was far from a processional to the checkers. Qualifying 32nd, Montoya drove to the front through pit strategy, sneaking past Jamie McMurray with seven laps remaining to take that elusive checkered flag. But fuel was absolutely an issue (the No. 26 ran out with a couple to go) and there was every chance the No. 42 would suffer the same fate; however, he held on to record that organization’s first victory in five years. (Ironically, the last Ganassi driver to win a Sprint Cup race was McMurray in what was then just his second race at the top echelon).
What was interesting about the win at Sonoma was that Montoya’s prime emotion in victory lane was one of relief as opposed to unmitigated joy. He’d proved he could do it – albeit on a course everyone expected him to win on – but now, he was part of an elite group of just 178 drivers who’d won a race at the Sprint Cup level. That spoke volumes about his ability to successfully adjust to stock cars, and the Colombian knew he’d climbed a hurdle.
The prior confidence is important, because wins are what Montoya is going to need if he is to claw his way back into Chase contention. Looking at the next eight races, Montoya has a best finish of 15th and only one top 10 at any of them for his career (10th at Dover). Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, but that doesn’t bode well for his future prospects. The ninth race for Montoya is Infineon; but if he continues to run in a similar fashion like he’s doing now, a win there will be far too late.
So, is it Chase or bust? On the evidence so far I’d say bust; but Montoya is not a driver to discount glibly, and crew chief Donnie Wingo is in many ways the perfect foil for this situation. Their growing understanding can only help, despite the occasional language barrier; as Wingo noted, “99.9% of the time, I’m the only one that understands… anything he says.” But communication concerns aside, time is of the essence for them both; with every finish outside the top 10, Montoya is heaping soil onto an already large mountain he has to climb to get back into the top 12. The message is clear: if Montoya wants to make the Chase this season, he needs to get going sooner rather than later. Phoenix would be a good place to start.