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Woody: Montoya Brings Passion To The Chase

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 22 2009

Juan Pablo Montoya was fast and focused all weekend. (Elsa/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Juan Pablo Montoya was fast and focused all weekend. (Elsa/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer

Twelve Supermen dashed into the phone booth Sunday at New Hampshire and 11 emerged as Clark Kent.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup kicked off with a promise of passion, drama and fireworks and something seemed to be missing.

Namely, passion, drama and fireworks.

From my vantage point – the admittedly-removed seclusion of my sofa – it seemed to me that only one of the dandy dozen Chasers showed much passion about the ballyhooed playoff kickoff: Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian Fireball.

Except for Juan Pablo I saw a lot of driving but not much racing.

Winner and still points leader Mark Martin relied on a fast car and three decades of smarts to weave his way into the front. I like and admire Mark but let’s be honest – he’s no Intimidator. Mark is a stealth fighter, not a dive bomber.

I figured that Tony Stewart, after dozing through the previous four races, would explode in the Chase. I was wrong. Tony tiptoed through New Hampshire, sleep-walking to a four-point drop in the standings.

The same for Jeff Gordon. I thought all the frustration that had been building in recent years of sub-Gordon performances was due to boil over. I thought the driver and team that once were so brilliant would shine again. I thought Jeff could be the man to beat in the Chase. Wrong again. Like Stewart, Gordon soft-peddled his way backwards to a four-place plunge in the points.

Montoya was the only driver who seemed to race with any passion and urgency, the only one who appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

He was rewarded with a giant seven-spot leap in the standings, all the way up to fourth. And even then he sounded disappointed. He said he wanted to do even better.

I admire that kind of fire. It used to be routine in NASCAR, but it’s been missing for several seasons. The Chase was supposed to re-ignite it but it barely flickered in the opener.

Now the question becomes, going into Sunday’s Round 2 at Dover, can a hard-charger like Montoya win the Chase or will that aggressiveness be his undoing?

In recent years the conventional wisdom has been that playing it safe is the surest path to a championship. Don’t take chances. Don’t risk wrecking. Don’t mess up.

In other words, don’t race. The meek shall inherit the trophy.

That kind of timid, points-racing mindset has drained the action and excitement from stock car racing in recent years. I thought the Chase would revive it but I failed to see it in the opener. Except for Juan Paul.

Of the 12 Chasers, Montoya was the only one who really back his ears, barred his teeth and didn’t worry about scratching up his paint job.

Maybe conventional wisdom is right — maybe an aggressive driver like Montoya will take himself out of contention. Maybe a hard-charger can’t win the Chase. Maybe the way to be a champion in Today’s NASCAR is to tip-toe to the title.

I hope not. I hope there’s still place for a hard racer in racing.

Last Sunday Montoya was the fiercest warrior on the track. He drove hard. He drove like he wanted it. He drove like an old-fashioned stock car driver – like he’d run over his grandmother if she got in his way.

Wouldn’t it be something if Juan Paul knocked Conventional Wisdom over the wall, ran through NASCAR’s flower bed of shrinking violets, and banged his way to a championship?

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 22 2009
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