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Thompson in Turn 5: Juan Pablo Montoya Has Arrived, But His Championship Hopes Are Underpowered

For Juan Pablo Montoya, 2009 marks the year that he has become, by every measure, a stock car driver. When the Colombian began his full-time Sprint Cup career in 2007 after barely a hand-full of races ran in the Nationwide and ARCA series, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Montoya’s likelihood for success. Fast forwarding to the former Indianapolis 500 winner’s third season of NASCAR stock car racing, any lingering questions have been answered – he is a full-fledged, successful NASCAR driver.

Perhaps it is old news to some, but it has taken standing trackside for it to truly hit home for me that Montoya has arrived. Not to say that it has went unnoticed that the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has put together a decent season up to Richmond, but while his performance had been solid, there had been little to rave about. Although it was possible Montoya’s career had turned the corner from a mid-pack competitor to one of the series’ top-echelon drivers, it seemed equally possible that the chauffeur of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet may simply have learned to keep his nose clean and rack-up decent points-paying top-15 finishes.

One only has to focus their attention on Montoya as of late to know that he no longer considers himself a stock car apprentice needing to watch and learn from the veterans of the sport. Montoya clearly believes that his time has come and that he has no reason to defer to anyone in the Sprint Cup field. He is racing as a man that is now confident in his abilities to wheel full-fendered racecars.

After running as conservatively aggressive as is possible at Richmond to solidify his position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Montoya came out with his guns blazing to kickoff the 10-race championship run at Loudon, New Hampshire. For starters, he served notice that he and his team were taking the Chase seriously, winning the pole and setting a new track record, leading the most laps and finishing third in the race. It would have been a good outing for most, as Montoya catapulted from 11th in the points standings to fourth heading into last week’s event at Dover, Del.; however, the new Montoya, clearly on a mission to win races and compete for the championship, was unhappy that he did not visit victory lane.

There is a newfound confidence that became evident at Loudon. Following the race, he criticized arguably the sports most respected veteran, Mark Martin, for what he perceived to be unsportsman-like blocking. Though Montoya’s opinion may or not be correct, that he dared to question Martin’s driving etiquette speaks volumes to Montoya’s confidence and sense of self-assuredness with his place in the sport.

The cocksure, aggressive Montoya that fans of the now defunct CART and later Formula 1 racing knew has now emerged onto the NASCAR scene. He has readily admitted to keeping “the bigger picture” in mind leading up to the Chase, but just as quickly pointing out that it is not a race day approach that he particularly enjoys. However, unlike some of the Colombian’s peers, he understands the concept of the Chase and the importance of gaining every championship point possible. Prior to the AAA 400 Montoya explained his approach to the Chase, “There’s no holding back. We have to go,” he said, implying that “points racing” is not an option. “We are trying to drive the car as hot as I can. I don’t want to leave anything on the table.”

Two races down in this year’s NASCAR version of a playoff system and Montoya has racked up two top-five finishes, coming home third at Loudon and then a fourth at Dover. But what is most evident is the high level of tenacity in which he is driving. Last weekend’s race at Dover is a case in point as Montoya refused to relinquish positions, even early on, to competitors that clearly were faster. Montoya time and time again made his rivals, often times from the potent Hendrick Motorsports stable, earn their positions in front of him. He refused to simply concede his position and move over with the hope of adjusting on his Target Chevrolet during the next pit stop. In short, he is driving like a championship contender and in the process has become one!

Some always believed that Montoya would become a top-tier Sprint Cup driver, others, including myself, had doubts. Ironically, the very first Turn 5 article published in July of 2006 opined on the then-recent news that Montoya would be competing in the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2007, and sarcastically expressed skepticism. “Amongst all this “P.C.” talk, did anyone ‘in the know’ point out just how large the odds are against Montoya making a successful transition to the very different racecars of NASCAR? Do the names of drivers Adrian Fernandez, Paul Tracy, Al Unser Jr. or Christian Fittipaldi mean nothing? Has anyone bothered to tell Juan Pablo about these previously highly talented open-wheel racers who came to conquer, only to leave conquered?”

Boy, did I catch it from the open-wheel fans on that article! Nonetheless, in rereading my words, now more than three years old, I suppose I would have to concede that I clearly underestimated what a talented driver and a team owner committed to that driver can accomplish. Chip Ganassi has remained faithful to his driver and given him the needed time to adjust to NASCAR’s style of racing and both now are reaping the rewards of their mutual confidence in one another, hard work, and perseverance.

Nevertheless, standing trackside in recent weeks has also convinced me that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Juan Pablo Montoya will not win the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Not through any lack of talent, desire or determination on Juan Pablo’s part, but simply because his EGR equipment in the end will come up short against at least one of the three drivers piloting the superior equipment provided by Hendrick Motorsports.

Considering that the Earnhardt-Childress engines could not power the likes of past Chase contenders Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick or Montoya’s EGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the 12-driver Chase field, it is a stretch to believe that they would perform well enough for Montoya to win the championship. They are good, but no amount of talent is going to overcome that glaring disparity between what they and Hendrick Motorsports are serving up.

But, then again… this prediction is being offered by the same guy that had Juan Pablo Montoya long gone from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by now.

And that’s my view from turn 5.