By Nate Ryan, USA TODAY
In an offseason merger, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates added «Earnhardt» to the Sprint Cup team’s name. Though born of financial necessity, it has become a fitting moniker for Juan Pablo Montoya’s breakout season in NASCAR.
The Colombian has exhibited a dash of Dale Earnhardt’s swagger in becoming a championship contender this season, most recently in plowing his way around Martinsville Speedway to a third place Sunday while also angering Jeff Gordon.
Whether it’s standing up to four-time champions without apology or squelching controversy with a simple answer, Montoya has proved unflappable while rattling off five top-five finishes in the last six races to rank fifth in points.
«He does have an Earnhardt-type attitude,» says Sabates, the minority owner of Montoya’s team. «Montoya is very intense. He doesn’t want to sound like a rah-rah-rah guy, but he is very serious. Earnhardt was just like that.»
Montoya, though, isn’t imitating «The Intimidator.» His persona is the same as when he became a winner in the CART and Formula One series. In his second CART race, Montoya squeezed Michael Andretti into the wall and laughed when confronted afterward. In his third F1 race, he completed a daring pass of Michael Schumacher and started a long-running feud with the seven-time champion.
While Montoya has embraced the Cup camaraderie and relied on peers (such as Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick) for advice, he also hasn’t shied from racing them aggressively.
«I have a pretty good relationship with most of the drivers, so I’m good with that,» he says. «Everybody knows once you’re on the racetrack, it’s not about friendship, it’s about getting the job done.»
Montoya handles the news media in a similar way. Though often candid, he also is direct, as when asked about Bob Griese’s suspension («I don’t really care») for an insensitive comment about Montoya.
«Something people forget is I’m not here to please you guys,» he says. «I’m here because I want to win and do the best I can. I don’t do it to get credit. I do it to get the job done.»