Montoya is finally running consistently well at tracks other than road courses and putting himself in position for that breakthrough victory on an oval. It’s made his two near-misses this season painful to watch because they come at a time when Montoya desperately needs to prove his worth.
Montoya finished second Sunday at Dover, where he was passed on the outside by race-winner Tony Stewart with three laps remaining. Stewart, mired in his own losing streak and trying to save his championship chances, had fresher tires and cruised past Montoya for the victory.
Montoya isn’t necessarily racing for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – he’s only made the Chase once in six years and went into Sunday ranked 23rd in the standings.
But if Chip Ganassi doesn’t pick up the option on his current contract, Montoya could be out of a job next year and possibly out of NASCAR altogether.
Ganassi has been noncommittal on Montoya this year, and his last public comments were in April.
“We continue to work with him, try to get the most out of him,” Ganassi said of his longtime driver. “If I thought there was a quick fix, or if I thought there was something we’re doing – we’ve put people around him, put other people around him and put other people around him.”
So now Montoya waits to see what happens or what else might be out there for him. The Colombian, a former Formula One driver, CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, is too proud to take a crummy job. His racing résumé is too rich to even consider a start-and-park ride simply to keep his face in the NASCAR garage.
All he can do is race as hard as he can with the cars he has, and finally they seem good enough for a checkered flag.
Now Montoya needs to win. So Stewart, the head policeman on blocking, maybe would have understood if Montoya had made things very difficult for him over those final three laps Sunday.
“Both of us are hungry for a win,” Stewart said. “For someone like him, he’s an Indy 500 champion. There’s no doubt he knows how to drive. There’s no doubt he knows how to win races. He could have made it a lot worse on us, and he ran with respect. When you’re hungry for a win, it’s easy to say ‘Hey, I did what I had to do.’ He ran us with the utmost of respect, and I think he deserves a lot of credit and recognition for that.”
Montoya also deserves recognition for sticking with a Ganassi program that has slogged through several rebuilds since he left F1 for NASCAR in 2006. He wasn’t coming to NASCAR for a heavyweight, either, but a middle-of-the-road program at best.
It was Ganassi himself who was the draw. Montoya and Ganassi had won 11 races together in 1999 and 2000 in CART, including the 1999 championship and the 2000 Indy 500. Montoya left for F1, but was now returning to the U.S. to hook up with his old boss.
His return was supposed to give the Ganassi organization a boost, and with a win on the road course at Sonoma, six top-10s and rookie of the year in 2007, he was a brief shot in the arm. The next season was a disaster: Montoya had two crew chief changes in the first 16 races and when Ganassi moved Brian Pattie up from the Nationwide program, neither the crew chief or the driver wanted to be partnered together.
Montoya and Pattie found a way to work together, though, and Pattie in 2009 sold Montoya on a program that resulted in his most successful NASCAR season. Montoya made the Chase, notched a career-best 18 top-10s, and was third in points with six races to go in the season before fading to eighth in the final standings.
He should have won at Indianapolis that year and finally crossed winning on an oval off of his list. Instead, he was flagged for speeding on his final pit stop and his lead of more than 5 seconds was wiped away. After leading a race-high 116 laps, he finished 11th.
He should have won the race the next year, too, after leading 86 laps. Only a late caution for debris sent him onto pit road, where Pattie called for four new tires as teammate Jamie McMurray only took two. It sent Montoya back onto the track in seventh, angry and frustrated, where he ultimately wrecked trying to pass cars in traffic as McMurray went on to win the race.
Although he went on to win on the road course at Watkins Glen later that year, Montoya didn’t have another chance on an oval. Pattie was let go the week before Indianapolis in 2011 – Montoya’s fourth crew chief change – and the team began an overhaul that winter. Chris Heroy was hired as Montoya’s fifth crew chief before 2012, and the entire year was spent trying to get the Ganassi cars up to speed.
So the stat line shows just two wins – none on an oval – and 54 top-10s in 230 career starts.
Stewart is quick to point out that’s not Montoya’s fault.
“At this level, it truly is about the people that you’re with,” said Stewart, the three-time NASCAR champion. “It’s like he mentioned the other day, he went through the lowest of low times last year with Ganassi and those guys have made huge, huge steps in their program this year. Now they are reaping the rewards of it, both him and Jamie. It’s good to see, because Juan is a championship-caliber driver.
“Where he was running in the field last year is not indicative of his skill and talent as a driver, and it was good to see him in a position to win the race.”
Montoya was also in position to win at Richmond in May until a late caution sent the field down pit road one final time. It took away his chance at victory and he settled for fourth. But after a series of early season issues and pit-road miscues, Montoya has climbed from 30th to 22nd in the standings and has three top-10 finishes in his last five races.
More important, he was in position for two wins.