From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:
Juan Pablo Montoya can be either princely or prickly, depending on the mercurial driver’s mood. He’s been more regal of late, after the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team’s advancement into the Chase and the ongoing stellar performance in the first three races of the “post season.”
The Colombian has always been the kind of driver who makes things happen. He won the CART championship in his rookie year, became the first “crossover” driver to appear at the Indy 500 the following year, dominating en route to victory in his first appearance at the Brickyard.
Say what you will about lost opportunities during the sometimes stormy tenure during his Formula One stint with the teams of Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, which both effectively cut him loose from contracts early. Montoya often helped stir the drink in the Schumacher era and turned in some extraordinary performances in winning at circuits like Monaco and Monza.
In NASCAR, give Montoya credit for becoming one of the good ol’ stars by maintaining a relatively even keel over the course of his first three seasons inside the car and out. Inside the car, he no longer tends to “retire early” when things don’t go his way. In his duel with Mark Martin at New Hampshire, Montoya also demonstrated he knows the rules of the road when it comes to keeping the show rolling instead of starting a demolition derby.
He doesn’t always directly answer questions posed by the media, but Montoya generally provides interesting responses without being argumentative, short-tempered, evasive or arrogant, all present from time to time in the pre-NASCAR years.
At Kansas, after working to balance his Target Chevrolet all day with air pressure and track bar adjustments, Montoya tagged Jimmie Johnson’s car and damaged his front spoiler during a late-race duel. He fulminated for two slow laps, but then re-focused and finished fourth after some encouragement from crew chief Brian Pattie.
At Indianapolis, where he was infamously tagged with a speeding ticket on the pit road for, well, speeding, he re-focused on finishing the race he had dominated to sustain his place in the Chase.
But the stirring may begin anew any day now. After three straight top five finishes in the first rounds of the Chase, Montoya is en route to possibly winning the championship without winning a race. If the EGR team, Pattie and Montoya keep this up, the driver may become the poster boy of all those who don’t like the re-set of points at the outset of the Chase.
Tony Stewart chafes when asked about suffering from the re-set after two lousy performances in the Chase. Montoya could well become less than princely on the subject should he continue to be a contender by top-fiving all the way to the final title race in Homestead. Such questions can be perceived as slighting the driver’s ability. Thus far, it’s been all praise for Montoya — and justly so.
Can it happen – a winless champion? It’s far less likely now that Stewart won in Kansas and moved up to fourth place. It’s hard to imagine Stewart, points leader Mark Martin and second-placed Johnson all failing to win races and record consistent finishes in the Top Five in the remaining seven races. That would be enough to keep Montoya, presently in third, away from the trophy.
It’s more likely that Montoya himself steps up to victory lane. He has been in the hunt for two of the first three races in the Chase on tracks where he didn’t have strong records previously. If he continues to get to the front each weekend, sooner or later he and Pattie will find the right combination at the right time.
If so, Montoya will be making things happen once again. Like his improbable fuel mileage victory at the Infineon Raceway, who would have anticipated Montoya winning on an oval with the Sprint Cup on the line? Few are discounting the possibility these days.
Q & A
This week’s edition comes from the transcript of the Friday media conference with Juan Pablo Montoya at the Kansas Speedway.
Question: What are your thoughts on the race in California next week and it being added to the Chase?
Montoya: “I would rather have Atlanta to be honest. I always run really well at Atlanta. At the same time we ran pretty good (in California) last time we were there. It was very early in the season and even then I think we had decent cars. Right now we’ve got much more competitive cars. Going to California it’s going to be exciting.
“You’ve got to be very open-minded. We’re bringing our best stuff every week and you’ve got to hope what you bring is good enough. Some weeks you’re good enough for a Top Five and some weeks maybe good enough to win and some weeks you kind of look at yourself and, you know, finish 12th or 15th. Everybody is going to go through it right now.”
Question: Can you talk about any instance recently where you’ve seen the team step up?
Montoya: “I think everybody is just more relaxed. I think that’s the bigger thing. Everybody is calm and everybody knows what they’ve got to do. Being realistic, our goal was really making the Chase and there was a lot of pressure on everybody to do that and we did. Of course you want to run well, of course you want to fight for the championship but this is a bonus for us right now.
“Everybody is pumped up about it and everybody is trying to bring their A-game every week and everybody is doing it. That’s the biggest difference. There were always people concerned on the pit stops, (saying) ‘Oh let’s not make any mistakes.’ And now it’s time to go. It’s exciting and the same with the driving.”
Question: Is it going to take Top Five’s to win the Chase?
Montoya: “Oh, I think it’s going to take Top Fives all year. And I’ll be honest with you. I think more than the No. 48, I would be worried about the No. 5 car. You know, the No. 48 either really shines, really shiny, like perfect and everything. They have picture perfect days or they have average tenth-place days. Where the No. 5 car kind of struggles all day and he finishes second, third, or wins. Second, third, win every freakin’ week you know? (laughter).”
Question: Some drivers at Chase time, get very into their heads and (ask themselves) what do I have to do to win? For some, the toughness of it can break them. You seem to be a little more (cavalier).
Montoya (laughing): “It’s 10 races you know? The Formula One championship was 15 races. So this is like a normal season for me.”