Montoya is heading to his own little Shangri-La this weekend, a personal paradise in northern California where quality wines flow and road racers excel.
Infineon Raceway in Sonoma brings out the best in Montoya, as it’s the place where he proved he could win in Sprint Cup two years ago.
“Heading into this weekend is encouraging for us,” Montoya said. “We have some momentum, and I expect to see good results.”
Good results might be an understatement. Montoya was born to road race. The former CART champion and Formula One winner is back in his element whenever Cup hits the road, so to speak.
But this time, Montoya can use his advantage to help him get where he always has wanted to go — a place in the Chase. Now in his third Cup season, a playoff spot is closer than ever.
Montoya is 14th in the standings, but only 43 points behind 12th-place Jeff Burton. And this is the week to make up ground, especially against the three drivers directly ahead of Montoya on the points list.
Road racing isn’t a strength for David Reutimann (13th in the standings), Burton (12th) or Matt Kenseth (11th). They’re a winless trio when they have to turn right, a combined 0-for-50 on road courses.
Kenseth has only four top-10s in 18 road-course starts and only one at Infineon. Burton has one top-10 in his past seven starts on the 1.99-mile Sonoma course.
And Reutimann has only two road-course starts in his Cup career. He wrecked and finished 40th last year at Infineon.
For Montoya, it’s blood in the water. He has finished sixth or better in three of his four Cup starts on the two road courses — Infineon and Watkins Glen.
That doesn’t include his stunning Nationwide Series victory two years ago on the road course in Mexico City, an incredible drive though the field in the final laps before bumping and passing his teammate, Scott Pruett, to take the lead.
Anyone who thinks road racing lacks excitement didn’t see Montoya that day. It was a display of driving skill that left almost everyone there in awe of his talent.
Three months later, he won the Cup race at Sonoma, proving he is as good as anyone in NASCAR when it races on his turf.
But 34 of 36 events each year come on circle tracks. Many people doubted whether Montoya could get it done outside his preferred discipline and race consistently near the front on ovals.
This year, some of those doubters are starting to believe he can. Montoya has finished eighth or better in three of the past four races. He has posted top-10s in four of the past six events.
The 34-year-old Colombian realizes consistency is the key. Montoya said his outlook has changed from his first two Cup seasons.
“I’m not looking at what races I’m going to run good, like I did before,” he said. “We’re looking at running good every week. I’m pretty encouraged, to be honest.”
So is Brian Pattie, who took over as Montoya’s crew chief in May 2008.
“At this time last year, Juan just had another crew chief change, and there was a lot of uncertainty,” Pattie said. “That stretch from Race 10 to Race 20 [in 2008] was kind of a blur for him.
“But we’ve built a lot of stability around him since then. The second half of last year, all we thought about was what we could do to be in position to make the Chase this season. That was our No. 1 goal.”
Now it’s within reach, a stark difference from a year ago. Montoya ranked 22nd heading to Sonoma last June, 276 points outside the Chase cutoff.
His only top-10 entering the road-course event was a runner-up finish at Talladega, but he finished sixth at Infineon, one year after winning the race as a Cup rookie.
“There are number of reasons for the improvement this year, and gaining experience is one of them,” Montoya said. “I’m becoming more and more comfortable at every track. That’s a great feeling.”
A return to Victory Lane on Sunday probably would move Montoya solidly into the top 12. It’s great timing for him but also is good for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
EGR could use some good news. The offseason merger between team owners Chip Ganassi and Teresa Earnhardt hasn’t gone well overall.
EGR initially hoped to field four cars but is down to two after failing to find sponsorship for Aric Almirola and shutting down the No. 8 team.
It hasn’t hurt Montoya, who sees only positives in the merger.
“The move to Chevy [from Dodge engines] cannot be overstated,” he said. “That has been great in every way.”
Montoya is EGR’s one bright spot for now.
“It definitely helps morale here to come in on Monday and be able to know all the hard work is paying off,” Pattie said. “I feel like this team is solid as a rock.”
But the merger hasn’t paid off for teammate Martin Truex Jr., who is expected to leave EGR and sign with Michael Waltrip Racing for 2010. Truex ranks 22nd in the standings, seven spots lower than he was one year ago in the No. 1 Chevy.
“The merger was a bigger change for the 1 car,” Pattie said. “Things didn’t change that much for us. We got new shirts, but we’re in the same building with the same people.”
So in some ways, EGR’s future is riding on Montoya’s shoulders. The organization needs him to make the Chase.
So does NASCAR. A fresh face and a little diversity in the playoff wouldn’t hurt.
Montoya was NASCAR’s poster boy for diversity when he arrived, but that isn’t why he’s here. His goals remain the same as the first day he sat in a Cup car: win races and contend for a title.
Both are achievable now. Montoya knows he can win this weekend. He also knows he’s getting closer to winning on an oval track.
Put them together, and you have a playoff contender.
“It gets more frustrating the better you run,” Montoya said. “It’s about keeping the momentum. We just have to keep coming.”
By Terry Blount, ESPN.com