WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Juan Pablo Montoya was 10th on the speed chart for final practice Saturday at Watkins Glen International.
It’s not surprising. Running in that vicinity has been the strategy all season for the No. 42 Target team.
Crew chief Brian Pattie’s gameplan since the season began has been simple: If Montoya can finish in the 10th, 11th or 12th position throughout the first 26 races, he would qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
«We have five more weeks of sticking to our plan of top 10s — top 12s will get you in,» Pattie said. «We can’t change now until NASCAR comes and tell me we’re in, I have to stay the course.»
Certainly, some of the finishes have been out of Montoya and the team’s control. However, since Dover in June when Montoya shot out of the gate like a thoroughbred, failed to manage his tires and wound up 30th, he’s posted a string of eight finishes of 12th or better and an average finish of eighth place.
Montoya also jumped from 15th to eighth in the standings during that span. In Montoya’s first two seasons on the tour, his best finish in the standings was 20th his rookie year. He also won his first and only Cup race that season when he took the checkers at Infineon Raceway, the other road course on the schedule. But Montoya, 33, has made dramatic gains in NASCAR since he was paired with Pattie in May 2008.
«I think one of the biggest things is we seem to have a very good relationship,» Montoya said. «We understand each other and it’s exciting. It’s his first full season as a Cup crew chief and he brought our team to a new level. It’s really nice to see.
«But it’s not only him, I think everybody from the shop to engineers, to people building the cars, everybody. It’s a full team effort. You gotta say Brian is the head guy there and he seems to be doing a great job.»
With Montoya’s accomplishments as a CART champion and winner of seven Formula One races, Pattie knew it was defeatist to concoct a setup and force his driver to race it. Instead, Pattie has adapted the setups to Montoya. The team has also discovered how the car needs to be dialed in during practice in order to run successfully in the race. Over time, Montoya has improved his ability to pick up trends.
«That was the turning point,» Pattie said. «We’ve been building notes and better pieces then when we come back to the tracks he reaps the benefits.»
Team owner Chip Ganassi has worked diligently to provide Montoya with the best possible tools to nurture his driver’s development, even if it meant changing crew chiefs or manufacturers. On Saturday, Ganassi said «for now» his plan is to remain with Chevrolet in 2010. Given that both Montoya and Pattie don’t like change, being able to continue with the manufacturer makes sense. With the gains the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi crew has made over the last year, switching makes would be a setback. And Montoya is intent on moving forward.
But Montoya never expected to enter NASCAR three years ago and set the world on fire. He understood the transition would take time.
«If somebody came to me and said, ‘All right you being a Formula One driver, you’re going to come here and you’re going to kick ass,’ I didn’t think it was going to happen,» Montoya said. «I think a couple of weeks when I felt comfortable and everything came out my way I could be fast but it was more hit and miss than anything else. Hit and miss with 76 races doesn’t help.»
Montoya will make his 95th career Cup start Sunday. He’s eighth in the standings — 169 points ahead of 13th-place Kyle Busch. With the results the No. 42 team have posted leading up to the final five races of the season, Pattie will indeed «stay the course.» But what’s his strategy if the No. 42 team indeed qualifies for the Chase?
«My plan is only for 26 weeks,» Pattie said. «We have to sit down on Tuesday after Richmond and figure out the last 10 races.»
by Lee Spencer msn.foxsports.com