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2009 Season Review: Juan Pablo Montoya

2009 Ride: No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
2009 Primary Sponsor: Target
2009 Owner: Teresa Earnhardt & Chip Ganassi
2009 Crew Chief: Brian Pattie

Stats: 36 Races, 0 wins, 7 top fives, 18 top 10s, 2 poles, 8th in points
Best Finish: 2nd – Pocono (August)
Average Finish: 14.2

High Point: Making the Chase has to go down as Juan Pablo Montoya’s highlight of the year. With all the preseason turmoil and upheaval following a merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. – combined with the relative poor form of new stablemate Martin Truex Jr. – it’s a credit to Montoya, crew chief Brian Pattie, and the entire No. 42 team that they ran so well across the entire campaign. Until a chain reaction wreck at Lowe’s took him out of the running, Montoya was enough of a threat in the first 3-4 Chase races to have fans and pundits seriously talk up his chances at winning the big prize.

Low Point: Unquestionably, it was the Brickyard 400, at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when a pit-road speeding penalty cost Montoya the win. The Colombian will have few days in his NASCAR career when his car was as crushingly and utterly dominant as it was that day in late July, when he led 116 of the first 124 laps at the Brickyard. So for the three-year Cup driver to throw away one of the biggest races with a simple mental error just compounded the misery, keeping him from being the first man to win at Indy in both stock cars and open-wheel. Don’t be surprised, though, to see Montoya rectify the rookie mistake when the circuit swings through the fabled 2.5-mile speedway in 2010.

Summary: In the simplest terms, Montoya’s season can be divided into two distinct sections. The first 26 races were all about him making his first ever Chase, as he throttled back both his balls-to-the-wall style and natural instinct – clawing and snarling in each “freeeking” lap to ensure he scored the points necessary to make the big dance. But once he got there, the chains came off the wheels, and Montoya established himself as a bona fide contender for a future Cup title. The only driver to score four top fives in the first four playoff races, he was in perfect position to make some serious noise until wrecks in three of the next four weeks left the No. 42 team’s Cinderella slipper broken in two.

In the end, it was an eighth place finish in the Chase for Montoya – some 400 points back from old Four-Time Jr. himself, Jimmie Johnson – but regardless of his falloff in the second half of the Chase, he announced himself in 2009 as a driver to watch very closely in the future.

The season certainly didn’t start out that way, though. JPM opened with a 14th-place run at Daytona and an 11th-place effort at Fontana, nothing to indicate the team would be a title contender just a few short months down the road. Two subpar finishes followed before he scored his first top 10 of the year, a ninth-place run at the tricky half-mile up in Bristol. It took three more top 10s in the next seven races to bring Montoya back to the edges of Chase contention, just outside the top 12 in points after Charlotte. The regular season’s midpoint at Dover saw Montoya slip back with a 30th-place finish, but that’s when consistency kicked in – three straight top 10s vaulted him inside the all-important top 12 after that. Four further solid finishes (12th, ninth, 10th and 11th) and his best run of the season at Pocono (second) suddenly solidified his place in the standings, and a sixth at Watkins Glen left him an all-but-certain lock for the playoffs. After a third in the penultimate race before the Chase at Atlanta, he had a cushion of a shade less than 100 points headed into the cutoff at Richmond. A conservative 19th-place finish there proved the clincher, making him the first foreign-born driver in the history of NASCAR’s six-year Chase format.

Montoya then had unquestionably his best four races of the season, finishing third at Loudon, fourth at Dover and Kansas, then third again at Fontana to jump to third in the standings. But a chain reaction crash on a restart at Charlotte relegated him to a mid-30s finish (35th) and that result, for all intents and purposes, killed his longshot title hopes. Montoya did, however, make it five top fives in the first six races with an aggressive drive to a third-place finish at Martinsville, and at Phoenix in November picked up his 18th top 10 – a career record by an absolute country mile, having picked up just a total of nine in the previous two seasons combined.

But even though Montoya matured on the racetrack, don’t think his aggressive streak has gone away completely. Homestead made that perfectly clear, as an on-track tangle with Tony Stewart led to both drivers intentionally wrecking each other en route to a two-lap penalty for aggressive driving and a 38th-place finish by Montoya.

Team Ranking: He still has teammates? Oh, sorry, yeah he technically does… we’ll say he’s the first of two on an EGR team that actively shrunk throughout 2009, losing Aric Almirola just seven races into the season and Truex Jr. to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010 (he’ll be replaced by Jamie McMurray next year).

Off-Track News: One of the most ardent embracers of Twitter, Montoya has some 66,000 followers at the time of this writing and is arguably the presumptive champ in terms of Sprint Cup drivers who actively tweet. You can find his feed by clicking here. Fair warning; it’s not exactly life-changing stuff, but it’s still interesting to see behind the curtain of a top-level wheelman who’s slowly building a fan base in the series.

2010 Outlook: Two words: extremely positive. Expect Montoya to make the Chase again, win on an oval for the first time – not to mention the two road-course races – and add to his already blossoming resume as a Sprint Cup driver. Headed into his fourth full season, Montoya now has the experience of visiting all the tracks on the schedule, not to mention a solid team, top-notch head wrench, and a settled sponsor he knows and loves. There’s no reason to believe, then, that the open-wheel convert can’t continue his incremental improvement as a stock car racer in 2010.

2007 Frontstretch Grade: C
2008 Grade: D
2009 Grade: A-

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