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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Juan Pablo Montoya Shows 2010 Championship Credentials in 100th Start

All told, it was a damn fine weekend for Juan Pablo Montoya.

Not only did he sit on the pole – smashing the previous track record – he was on top of the speed charts at every practice, led the most laps (105, 37 more than the next-highest total) and finished third on the day, pipped on the final corner for second place by a hard-charging Denny Hamlin.

Given that the irascible Colombian had nary a top 10 in his five previous visits to Loudon (19th, 23rd, 32nd, 17th and a high-water mark of 12th back in late June) such effort was all the more impressive. Sitting only 55 points behind Mark Martin for the championship lead and 35 back from Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson in second place, Montoya clearly believes that just “making the Chase” is not the lone highlight of his season anymore. Crew chief Brian Pattie agrees:

“I believe you saw it,” he said of his driver’s focus following a podium finish in his first ever playoff start. “Our driver is ready, and we have really good cars coming down the pike here. We just continue our game plan of proving everybody wrong, and that we’re legit.”

Strong words from the veteran head wrench, indeed. But Pattie also injected a note of caution in the midst of a promising day in which Montoya moved to fourth in points.

“It’s only one race, so let’s not get excited,” he warned. “But the next nine will be fun.”

“We’re not supposed to be here… you name a person in the garage who said we were supposed to be in the Chase. You won’t find one. It’s been that way since the beginning, and our motto has been to prove it wrong all year. It’s not over.”

Well, one thing is certain moving forward: Montoya won’t wither like a wallflower that’s seen too many days of sun. I’ve been lucky enough through the course of work to meet a number of world-class athletes, from Olympians to soccer players to NFL stars, not to mention NASCAR drivers – and almost all have that inner confidence and belief in themselves that is so critical to making it at the top level. But few come close to the unwavering belief Montoya has in his abilities, and it’s an attitude that can at times spill over into unwarranted arrogance. For example, at Chase Media Day in New York, he was asked how satisfying it was to prove all the doubters wrong by making the Chase. His reply?

“I’m not here to please you guys. I’m here because I want to do this. I wanna win and do the best I can.”

Now on the one hand, that’s a fair reaction; but on the other hand, a little bit of humility wouldn’t have hurt. But humility, I suspect, is a word that doesn’t appear in the Montoya dictionary.

Another word that will be crucial in the Montoya lexicon these next couple of months is balance. All season long, the Colombian suppressed his “balls to the wall” attitude, eschewing going all out for wins in favor of points racing. No doubt that approach worked – after all, he made the Chase – but now comes the tricky part. Top 10-15 runs are all well and good, but to win it all he’ll need consistent top fives. With the intensity ratcheted up, it’s Montoya who will have to manage the balance between when and how to turn it on in crunch time. And finding that balance between aggression and points racing might be where the Colombian falls down.

So while top 10s have kept Montoya in the hunt to this point, don’t forget most of his immediate competition has smoked him in the category of top-five finishes. Tony Stewart, for example, has 10 more top-five runs than Montoya (who has three total, including Loudon). Four-time Jeff Gordon has nine more while Hamlin, Johnson and Martin all have cracked double digits in that category. Yes, the Chase is a short sprint when viewed in the context of a 36-race season; but even over a 10-race spell, most drivers will run to form of the previous 26. And if that’s the case, all the five drivers I’ve just mentioned will get it done more often than the Colombian in the final nine races.

The schedule will also be a critical factor in Montoya’s quest. Take a glance at his record at the remaining nine circuits: In the 40 races he’s attempted, he has just six top-10 finishes. Simply put, that sucks, to use a word Montoya seems to favor. Of course, what we are seeing fairly consistently from the wheelman of the No. 42 Target machine is improvement each and every time he returns to a track. But looking at his average finish and overall stats, you’d have to say that Montoya will need the nine races of his life, not to mention some slippage and bad runs elsewhere to truly stand a chance. Here’s his record at the upcoming tracks:

TrackStartsAverage FinishTop 10s
Dover524.41
Kansas224.00
California522.00
Charlotte527.41
Martinsville512.61
Talladega518.61
Texas520.42
Phoenix520.40
Homestead322.00

As you can see, the only oval where Montoya has experienced even limited success was Texas – the very place where he ran dead last in the Chase after an on-track shoving match with David Gilliland last November. So, the question becomes then, is Montoya ready to make a charge for the championship when few thought he could even make the elite field of 12? My answer is no, but it’s a qualified no. Just listen to what Montoya had to say after venting his spleen at Martin having the temerity to do something (brake-checking in turns 1 and 2) during the waning laps of the Cup race, a move that prevented the Colombian from a chance at winning for the first time on an oval:”I would have done the same thing… you gotta learn from it. I haven’t fought for enough wins [in NASCAR].” That’s a statement, I believe, that really needs no further clarification, its meaning being so self-evident.

And therein lies the rub. Yes, Montoya has exceeded expectations and yes, he’s run with phenomenal (and hitherto unseen) patience this year, but that same approach isn’t going to be enough to dethrone Johnson or usurp the likes of Martin and Stewart. Quite frankly, he’s still not proved he can run consistently high enough to be a true threat over the course of 10 races. Aided by the likes of Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick all suffering “off” years, he’s punched above his weight to make the Chase, and won’t be able to sustain it in the short-term.

But the driver did earn his place in the field; and after nearly three seasons and a century of races, Montoya’s transition from open-wheel cars to the heavier, bulkier stock cars is essentially complete. So even if 2009 doesn’t end in champagne-fueled ecstasy at Homestead, look out for Montoya to continue his stock car education and announce himself as a bonafide, serious threat for the title in 2010 and beyond.

And finally, a long overdue “Atta Boy” for Elliott Sadler. It has not been a banner year for the Trackside! Live presenter and driver of the No. 19 Dodge. Back in the cold winter months, Sadler had to invoke legal measures just to keep hold of his contractually obligated ride at RPM; then, making matters worse, he was about a lap and a half from winning the Daytona 500 before a yellow flag for an accident and a subsequent rainstorm. Derailed in that quest by Kenseth, his fifth-place finish at the 2.5-mile track in Florida remains his highest on the year, but Sunday’s eighth-place run at Loudon was a huge morale booster after starting a lowly 35th.

“It was a good run for us,” said the 12-year veteran. “We learned some things today that really helped our car. We found some things that I like to have in the racecar. Hopefully, we can build on that for the final nine races.”It’s been a whopping 162 starts since Sadler last won; and while I doubt he can turn that grim statistic around this year, positive momentum has to start somewhere and maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign of better things to come for one of the most popular drivers on the circuit today.