Lost in the pack, behind the failed fuel gambles of Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle and a series-equaling best third win for NASCAR’s very own Peter Pan, Mark Martin, was the sixth-place finish for the No. 42 car of Juan Pablo Montoya this week at Michigan.
But for a man who’d never been better than 25th at MIS, Sunday’s formidable finish was nothing to shy away from. The Colombian’s best run of the year, and fourth top 10 in six races, elevated the 33-year-old to 14th in the standings – leaving him a scant 43 points from the all-important Chase cutoff. Montoya’s ebullience was evident in his post-race comments, where in a telling moment, an often-temperamental driver wasn’t afraid to shy away from spreading the love.
“I think everyone did an awesome job on our team,” he said. “We have been having a lot of good points days lately with our Target Chevy, we just have to keep them coming. Our car was pretty good from the start of the race to the end.”
“It was a consistent day… it was a nice, quiet day.”
Nice, quiet, consistent days with good finishes have become something of a hallmark for Juan Pablo this season, his third and most successful one yet on the Cup circuit. Take a look, for example, at his lead lap finishes. This season, he has 11 such runs in 15 attempts; last year, he had only two more (13) lead-lap finishes for the entire season. In his rookie year of 2007, by comparison, he only managed 15 in total. His average start (13.5) and finish (15.8) in 2009 is also significantly better in both cases than 2008 (23.3 and 23.9, respectively.)
Some of this progress from Montoya is due to nothing more complicated than simple experience – knowing the unique challenges and what to expect at each of the 22 Sprint Cup circuits. But for a man under pressure throughout most of his career in stock car racing, that’s just one of many adjustments he’s made in NASCAR.
Those changes start at the top. Back at the start of the 2008 season, Chip Ganassi made a bold proclamation that it was “Chase or Bust” for the No. 42 team. But the trouble with these audacious announcements is that if you’re wrong, you can look awful silly in about the time it takes to run a lap at Martinsville. And wrong Ganassi most definitively was, as Montoya slid down the standings and out of contention long before the first Michigan race of 2008. Learning their lesson, there have been no brave statements pertaining to the Colombian’s chances this time ’round – so whisper it quietly – but there are sure signs that this could be the year Montoya makes the breakthrough into the ranks of the elite drivers.
Such predictions towards rarified air, at least in a driving sense, are familiar territory. A few months ago, the London Times published a series of columns listing the 50 best Formula 1 drivers in the modern era. Montoya finished 29th overall, with only four other similarly championship-less drivers higher in the standings. The excerpt from the newspaper is interesting:
“The ego had landed when Sir Frank Williams brought Montoya from IndyCar racing in the United States. A great improviser with a brilliant flair for overtaking, Montoya struggled with the discipline of Formula 1, making too many mistakes. Broke early with McLaren as disillusion set in and headed back to the U.S. to race in NASCAR.”
Winner of seven races in 84 attempts, including the coveted Monaco Grand Prix, Montoya did never quite put it together in F1; but he was quite impressive enough to finish high up such a vaunted list – with the ego seemingly getting in the way.
The Colombian’s leap to NASCAR was, essentially, born out of expediency; he realized the highest quality F1 rides had dried up. But he left his mark on F1, which, with the brawl with Harvick at the Glen and solid runs on the road courses aside, is something he has yet to truly manage in NASCAR. It’s an interesting scenario for him – a man once known for being a braggart now has nothing to show for it. Winning on an oval track is needed to help solidify his reputation and legacy, and so would making the Chase.
To do so at the Cup level, consistency and communication will be the key. So far, Montoya’s 2009 results prove the former and his burgeoning relationship with crew chief Brian Pattie demonstrate the latter. The experienced head wrench, Montoya’s third after Donnie Wingo and Jimmy Elledge, has not been afraid to try aggressive setups. But most importantly, he appears to have, if not tamed, then at least reigned in Montoya’s natural exuberance and fierce competitive juices.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing president Steve Lauletta agrees.
“What I see is a really strong balance and respect for each other,” he said recently. “There’s a ‘balance,’ meaning Brian is very calm and keeps things at the same level during the race. He also keeps Juan pumped up behind the wheel and understanding what is going on around him.”
The balance has led, in turn, to a more relaxed attitude behind the wheel. “Believe it or not, he has gotten a lot more patient,” said Keith “Hoss” Armstrong, the tire specialist on the Target Chevy, who worked with Montoya in IndyCar and has been alongside the Colombian for his three years in stock cars. “That first season, he would beat and bang and tear the car up the first half of the race. Now, he’s learning to pick and choose what he does and save the car more for the end and try to keep the fenders on them.” Pattie concurs. “He’s racing with a different attitude. His reputation precedes him. We have to be smarter and race maybe a little cleaner because we race these guys every week for 36 weeks. Enemies don’t help you any.”
A renewed commitment to patience will pay dividends for Montoya in the long-term, but an equally important component to his success so far this year has been the transition from Dodge to Chevy engines. The merger of DEI and Ganassi has not been a resounding success, ’tis true, but Montoya has clearly benefited from the fledgling organization’s decision to keep the Chevy powerplants. The additional horsepower has helped him run better and finish higher, and the enhanced quality of his rides is not lost on the driver of the Target No. 42 car.
“A good car makes a driver look good, a bad car makes a driver look really bad,” he explained. “Everybody at Earnhardt Ganassi is doing such a good job. Everybody’s pumped up and excited about it. It shows where the team is heading.”
“Right now, I don’t really care where we go. We seem to run good everywhere.”
That feeling’s a good one to have this week, as there cannot be many (any?) Sprint Cup circuits the Colombian looks forward to visiting more than Infineon, the track next up on the schedule. Montoya has excelled in both his previous visits to the road course in wine country, winning his first (and to date only) Sprint Cup race on his maiden visit, and finishing a creditable sixth last year. In other words, it’s a fantastic opportunity for Montoya to claw his way up the points ladder and into the hallowed top 12.
With 11 races to run before the Chase field cuts off post-Richmond in September, Montoya’s performances this weekend at Infineon and in August at Watkins Glen will be critical markers in his quest to make the Chase. Trips to friendly tracks – Chicagoland and Indianapolis, not to mention a return to Michigan – will also help the Bogota, Colombia native. And if he can finally put together a finish that matches his qualifying efforts at a restrictor-plate track (he won his first ever pole at Talladega in April), there’s no reason Montoya shouldn’t finish well in the July 4th classic when the series returns to Daytona.
In short, the time really is now for Juan Pablo Montoya to stake his claim for a spot in the 2009 Chase field. Infineon affords him the beginning of a golden chance to pile pressure on the occupants of those top-12 berths, and Montoya needs to make it count. For if he wants to make his first Chase, and in doing so become the first foreign-born driver to make the field of 12, he will have to back up his quote and indeed run well everywhere week in, week out across the sweltering summer months. That final, grueling test starts Sunday, and won’t let up until the checkered flag flies at Richmond in September.
And should Montoya make it that far – the fun will only just be beginning.