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Montoya Masters Short Game, Climbs To Top

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, December 13 2009
Juan Pablo Montoya has become a top-tier Sprint Cup driver.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Juan Pablo Montoya has become a top-tier Sprint Cup driver. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Juan Pablo Montoya is not often confused with the game of golf. But according to team co-owner Chip Ganassi, Montoya’s breakout season in 2009 had a lot to do with pitching and putting as well as hitting long drives.

“Juan has learned the game of golf,” said Ganassi, whose driver made the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship for the first time this year. “He’s understanding there’s a difference between the game of golf and a long drive contest. Some formula-car races are more like a long drive contest and NASCAR is more like golf.”

The first driver to make a successful transition from Formula One to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, Montoya has never lacked for car control or the desire to get to the front. His effort paid off in 2009 with seven top-five finishes and a near-miss in the Brickyard 400, where a pit road speeding penalty interrupted a dominant performance.

When his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevy entries were not front-runners, Montoya concentrated on the points finishes necessary to making the Chase. That’s harder than it looks according to his team co-owner.

“You have to know when to push and when not to, when to get more out of your equipment,” said Ganassi. “You have a constantly changing field of play. He’s learned the intricacies of that. It takes a while to learn how to do.”

During the Chase, Montoya declared himself satisfied with his season, despite the fact he was still looking for his first victory on an oval after winning on the road course in Sonoma in his rookie year in 2007.

“Overall I think it’s been a great season,” said Montoya, who added that he was often a late-season contender versus the sport’s most dominant team at Hendrick Motorsports. “I think we’re a lot better than what anybody expected,” he said.

That was not necessarily a surprise to Brian Pattie, Montoya’s crew chief. Ganassi had been trying to convince Pattie to move up to the Sprint Cup from the Nationwide Series, where he was the crew chief for 19 poles and 18 victories while at Nemco Motorsports and Ganassi. But Pattie turned down the offer of a promotion from Ganassi in order to spend time on Sundays with his wife and four children.

Ultimately, the prospect of working with Montoya helped lure Pattie into the Sprint Cup early last season, when he took over from Donnie Wingo in the season’s 12th race.

“Juan has tremendous car control,” said Pattie. “He’s smarter than most people think about the cars. He’s got instincts that very few have as far as knowing what to do and when to do it.”

In his third Sprint Cup season, the Colombian experienced the joys of running in the lead draft regularly.

“When you run up front, people have really good race cars and get to the front easier,” said Montoya, who led 388 laps. “If you make a change and it doesn’t work you’re confident enough that your car is good enough that you can give people a little more room. When you are running like 18th or 20th you’re at the point if it goes green for a long time you can get a lot (of positions). So you’ve got to get going all the time and it’s a little harder. Just a different perspective.”

The perspective has been different this year for the No. 42  EGR team in no small part due to the arrival of Pattie. It was Pattie who set the tone by establishing the criteria for making the Chase.

“The average finish was set actually in the middle of January,” said Pattie. “I’m a math guy. We looked at the last 10 years of history and figured where your average finish needed to be in the top 12. It was simple math to me. It somewhat equaled 14.0.”

Known for his no-nonsense, disciplined approach, Pattie altered the criteria from week to week in order to sustain an average finish of at least 14th.

“Based on our average finish of the year, we went into each race trying to change our number,” said Pattie, “trying to get that number back up. With 10 races to go before the Chase we said we needed top-10’s, top-12’s. So it was there from day one.”

At mid-season, Montoya began to publicly acknowledge his team was “points racing” instead of looking to win each race. That put him in a unique category in a sport where hustling points is tantamount to being afraid to fight. Known for cocksure, sometimes impetuous close-quarters racing from the outset, Montoya didn’t need to make apologies for concentrating on points.

His reputation, which includes victories at the Indy 500 and in seven F1 races, was less about the credentials he brought into NASCAR and more about his aggressiveness. Some of his open-wheel contemporaries have brought excellent report cards to the Sprint Cup, but have had trouble making the grade in stock cars.

“It’s funny, everybody always says I’m aggressive,” said Montoya. “I don’t see myself that aggressive. Honestly I don’t think I drive aggressive. I don’t like being pushed around, I don’t think anybody does. That’s about it. I do what I have to.”

It was ironic that Montoya had a run-in with Tony Stewart in the season finale at Homestead. In his first Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006, Montoya clashed with Ryan Newman over the issue of territory coming off the corners. Newman, how of Stewart-Haas Racing later retaliated, knocking Montoya out of the race.

This year at Homestead, Montoya tagged Stewart exiting one of the corners. After Stewart body-slammed Montoya’s Chevy, it was Montoya who found himself retaliating. After being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Charlotte and Texas, the final blow in Homestead left Montoya eighth in the points. He was as high as third midway in the Chase after posting four top-5 finishes in the first four races in NASCAR’s playoff.

His best shot at victory eluded Montoya when he overcooked his entrance to the pits in the Brickyard 400 after leading 116 of the first 124 laps. Although he never called him out in public, Pattie said two days after the race that the car was taken apart and everything was working properly – including the tachometer system used to alert the driver to the proper pit road speed.

The failed bid to become the first driver to win the Sprint Cup and the Indy Racing League events at Indy was the lone major drawback to the season.

“I think if you sit down with Brian and say what have we missed, we missed winning races because we started too far behind and to close the gap is really hard,” said Montoya, who didn’t record his first top-5 finish until running second at Pocono in August, the week after the Indy race. “We know what we did, we know how hard we had to work over the winter last year to get where we were and to stay here we’re going to have to keep doing the same and Brian understands it and everybody in the shop does. Hopefully we can keep improving and give ourselves a shot at winning races next year. That would be nice.”

The remaining big hurdle for Montoya and Pattie concerns late-race adjustments.

“If you look at it, 80 percent of the races we probably have always the fastest car this side of the races, by the end of the race we’re probably like third or fourth best,” said Montoya. “I don’t know if we start too good or if we don’t have much room for improvement and everybody else does. I think that’s our weakest thing right there.”

If he begins to find victory lane regularly, can a Colombian-born open-wheeler become a major star in a sport now known for heroes from the South, California and the Midwest?

“He’s three years into a NASCAR career and he’s knocking fenders with the best of ’em,” said Steve Lauletta, who became president of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after Ganassi’s team left Dodge behind to merge with Chevy entrant Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“Personality-wise, he’s a straight-shooter,” said Lauletta. “What you see is what you get. He’s not a phony. The more fans learn about him, and hear him and listen to him, the more that they’re attracted to him in a positive light as opposed to ‘He’s too aggressive. He’s not from here.’ That’s the kind of stuff that people who don’t like him, that’s the kind of stuff he’s overcoming.”

According to Pattie, the battle for respect on the track has been won.

“You have to earn your rank here in this series,” he said. “I think Juan’s proven he deserves to be here.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, December 13 2009
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