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On Anniversary, Montoya Looks Forward

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 13 2009
In 2006 at Chicago, Juan Pablo Montoya and Chip Ganassi announced Montoya's big career move. (NASCAR photo)

In 2006 at Chicago, Juan Pablo Montoya and Chip Ganassi announced Montoya's big career move. (NASCAR photo)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Joliet, Ill. – With throwing rumors against the wall to see what will stick being standard operating procedure in journalism’s brave new world, there are very few surprises on the sports-writing beat.

But three years ago at Chicagoland Speedway, there was a beauty of a surprise in store for those covering NASCAR, for those who compete in it and those who follow it. It involved nothing less than international intrigue.

At a hastily arranged press conference at Chicagoland, Chip Ganassi walked into the infield media center with Juan Pablo Montoya at his side and the announcement that followed caused a shock wave which was felt all the way to Europe.

Montoya would leave his driving job in Formula One, a job for the mighty McLaren Mercedes team yet, and embark on a NASCAR career.

As word of the announcement whipped through the garages, team owners and other drivers and even curious crew members headed to the media center to hear for themselves.

The rest of that weekend, the Montoya defection was topic No. 1 in the Chicagoland infield.

Debate raged in the state which gave us Lincoln vs. Douglas. Perhaps topping the list of debate topics was: How good would Montoya be in a stock car?

Now, on the third anniversary of the Windy City Surprise, it appears that those who debated on the side of Montoya being successful in Cup, may come up winners.

Montoya is making a strong bid this summer to secure a berth in the upcoming, 12-driver, 10-race Chase. And should he secure that berth, who knows how well he could do once in the Chase?

Montoya thinks he knows.

“To tell you the truth,” Montoya, a native of Colombia, said this weekend, “I think we are better prepared than ever as a team. I think our pit crew is working, we are having good pit stops now. We are having good calls for the races. Good strategy. The engineering side,  we have been developing from the beginning. Everything is really coming together. We have the ball rolling, we have a lot of momentum.”

Guess so.

Montoya has six top-10 finishes in the last eight races, the last of which coming Saturday night at  the place where it all began, Chicagoland Speedway. During that time, he has climbed from 15th to ninth in points.

Montoya is making his bid for the Chase, and perhaps a championship, on a team which is better know for people who are no longer with the team than for those that remain – Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

Someone asked him the other day if he thought that driving for a second-tier team was holding him back in his development and in attaining his goals.

Montoya, he of the perpetual smirk, smirked.

“It doesn’t matter if I am in a Hendrick car or a Ganassi car or a Gibbs car,” the winner of seven F-1 races and 30 podiums, said. “I’m happy where I am. I am working hard to make sure we become one of those teams. Right now, we are a smaller team and I don’t think it makes a difference. We’ve shown that as long as you have the right people working for you, you will be fine. I think our car today is as good as anybody’s.”

The driver of a Hendrick car agreed.

“Yeah, I see that whole organization improving,” Jimmie Johnson said. “They’re cars are driving better. It looks like they have more power. All of that has put Juan in a really good situation where he can let the car kind of do the work. In the past, he’s been extremely aggressive on track. And when you drive at 10-tenths all the time, mistakes happen and you get caught up in stuff. Right now, he can drive at a reasonable pace and have great control of his car and deliver great finishes week after week.

“So, I think what’s led to that is better equipment and better cars. The cars are faster. He’s making a lot of great decisions on track. Whoever is in that Chase, you’ve got to be concerned and worried about it. And if he’s in the Chase, I’m definitely going to be concerned.”

EGR suffered a significant hit last week when it was announced that its most successful driver, Martin Truex Jr., was moving to Michael Waltrip Racing next season.

The Truex move was pretty much doped out universally as another body blow to a team that has taken more than would seem just in recent years.

Montoya broke out another smirk when asked about it.

“Good for him,” he said. “If he wanted to go and he thinks he has got more stability at Waltrip’s, good for him. Hopefully he runs better there than he is here.”

The smirk took a break when Montoya talked about that day three years ago at Chicagoland.

“Time really flies,” Montoya, who won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie there, said. “It’s actually surprising that three years ago I flew up here and did the press conference and it was the first time really looking at the cars and everything. It was really exciting. To see how far we’ve come over the three years, I think everybody, really, when I came in, didn’t know what to expect.

“For me, when we talked to Chip (Ganassi), we knew the team wasn’t where it needed to be.

We needed to do a lot of changes and things were going to happen and it was going to be up and down. And I was OK with it. And we built a team. Things are getting better. We’re getting more competitive and right now where we are in points is all about surviving and bringing the car home every week and see what happens.”

What’s happening is a charge to respectability and perhaps a whole lot more.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, July 13 2009