Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Friday, July 19, 2013
Juan Pablo Montoya on the brink

By David Newton
ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- Juan Pablo Montoya spent the last off week of the Sprint Cup season on his farm outside his native Bogota, Colombia. There are some who believe it's time for him to move there permanently and give up trying to succeed in NASCAR the way he has flourished in every other form of motorsports.

There are some who believe that decision could be made for him by team owner Chip Ganassi, who has yet to publicly commit to Montoya beyond this season and has up-and-coming star Kyle Larson waiting in the wings.

That would be a shame.

Montoya is close to a breakthrough, closer to having a championship-contending team than some ranked well ahead of him in points.

Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin were collected in a late-race crash at Daytona in July. Montoya ended up 39th.

The numbers don't necessarily reflect that. Montoya is 23rd in the standings, 63 points out of the top 20 needed with a win to make him wild-card eligible for the Chase.

His last win, and one of his two in Cup, was at the Watkins Glen road course in 2010. He's never won on an oval.

But numbers don't always reflect performance, and the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team is one of those cases.

At Richmond, Montoya was cruising to the win with five laps remaining in regulation when caution came out for a wreck. He pitted, as did most of the leaders, but came out sixth and wound up fourth.

He finished second at Dover when Tony Stewart passed him with three laps to go because the three-time champion had fresher tires. He had a legitimate shot to win at Bristol, too, before a mechanical issue left him 30th.

Then there was Sonoma, where Montoya was running second when he ran out of gas on the final lap. He finished 34th.

There were other races in which an untimely pit stop or a loose wheel or part failure or wreck of somebody else's doing turned a good day into a bad one.

Also consider that Montoya's average starting position has improved from 23.2 in 2012 to 15.4. That's better than Stewart (16.4), who is 13th in points with a win, and only a few spots worse than five-time champion Jimmie Johnson (12.5), who has a 56-point lead on the field.

Unfortunately for Montoya, his average finish has dropped from 21.7 to 21.8.

"Personally, it sucks where we are in points," Montoya said before Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where getting out of sequence on pit stops left him 24th. "But I try to look at it as a team thing. Even when the gear box broke, it was a team thing.

"The encouraging thing is we're actually starting to see the light again. It's fun. It's been a year of ups and downs, but the downs are now 16th and ups are nearly wins. Last year an up was 25th. It was painful."

Now he is painfully close to a breakthrough.

Whether he and teammate Jamie McMurray, 15th in points, get to see it through is the only question.

"Week to week, Juan and Jamie are running in the lead pack for most of the race ... but you just can't run in the lead pack; you need to finish in the lead pack," Ganassi says. "We have been victims of some very bad luck this year, both of our own doing and from things out of our control. If as a team we can eliminate mistakes, we can have a very strong second half of the season."

Being close and pain in many ways sum up Montoya's NASCAR career. In 2009, during his only appearance in the Chase, he was fourth in the standings with three races remaining. He finished 37th and 38th in two of the final three races and wound up eighth. And close never was so painful as it was in 2009 and 2010 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where in 2000 Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 for Ganassi's IndyCar operation.

He should have won both of those years, but in 2009 he was called for pit-road speeding on the final stop to wipe out a lead of more than five seconds after leading a race-high 116 laps.

He finished 11th.

A year later, after leading 86 laps, then-crew chief Brian Pattie called for four tires on a late pit stop under caution because of debris while eventual winner McMurray took two. Montoya restarted seventh, then wrecked trying to aggressively make up ground.

He finished 32nd.

Those of us who followed him back to his motor coach, where he walked briskly with his head down without uttering a word, saw the disappointment and anger.

Jamie McMurray,  Juan Pablo Montoya
It can be argued that both Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya have underachieved for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

"You feel ripped off," says Montoya, not wanting to dwell on what could have been. "It is what it is."

In many ways, Montoya's team is stronger now than it was either of those years. He has a crew chief in Chris Heroy who left his role as an engineer for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports to work with him. He has a crew that believes in him.

He's just not getting the finishes to go with the performance, and whether he starts getting good finishes will ultimately figure into Ganassi's decision.

But Montoya isn't worried. Results aside, he's happier than at any other time during his almost-seven-year transition from Formula One to NASCAR.

He says he and Ganassi are talking about the future and "there's no rush."

"We have the right people now," Montoya says. "We have the ability now and the future is brighter than ever."

He and Heroy haven't given up on making the Chase with seven races to go. Their logic is sound even though the odds are long. But Montoya will be among the favorites to win at the next three tracks -- Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen.

He also has a chance at Michigan and Bristol. After Atlanta there's the regular-season finale at Richmond, where we've already seen how good he is.

"Obviously, it's a good reward we're shooting for," says Heroy, known as "Shine" by his team. "The guys know what we're trying to do, and it makes you work harder.

"I'm glad this team has had these experiences of being close. Now when there's five laps to go we know we've already been through this. The team has learned it needs to gain focus when we're running up there, and they are ready to make the next step."

A crewman walks by. Montoya cracks an inside joke that he doesn't intend to elaborate on. The crewman turns around and smiles, understanding the message. Montoya returns a devilish smile.

He really does enjoy this group. He feels they have his back more than any he's been with.

"It's fun. It's encouraging," Montoya says.

As the interview continues while crewmen shuffle in and out with their prerace routine, Montoya makes it abundantly clear there are two things you don't question around him.

One is what he calls the misunderstood perception that his native land is as dangerous as some make it out to be. He hates that just about as much as he does when people pronounce it the same way as Columbia, S.C.

Or as Montoya sarcastically jokes, "Co-LOOOOOOOM-bia!"

The other is Montoya's passion or desire to do whatever it takes to reach the top level of NASCAR as he did in CART, F1 and the Rolex Sports Cars Series.

"Tired of this?" says the 37-year-old driver, his voice racing a few octaves. "If I was tired of this, why in the hell would I be running 38 weeks a year when I was used to running 18?

"Let's put it this way, I invested a lot of time, money and effort. I want to succeed. I've won at everything. Yeah, I've won a couple of races here, but we want it to be to the point where every weekend wherever we go we're a force to be reckoned with."

He's getting close.

"

We have the right people now. We have the ability now and the future is brighter than ever.

" -- Juan Pablo Montoya

And Montoya is ready to do what his dad taught him while growing up in a land that has only one racetrack: that if you want something badly enough you'll work hard for it.

"I tell you, the last three years have sucked because we haven't performed," he says.

You hear the frustration.

It's hard to imagine being a talented athlete and not having the results to match that talent. It has to be especially hard in NASCAR because the driver depends on a machine and not a great jump shot or passing arm to elevate everyone around him.

Unlike LeBron James when he assembled the best NBA team in Miami, this South Florida resident went to EGR knowing there would be growing pains for him and the organization that never ranked among the top four or five in NASCAR.

"It's been hard," says Montoya, who has a high-rise apartment near the Heat's home arena. "When I decided to come to Chip I knew that was going to be a challenge. He was committed to making this a better team and he has. The full package wasn't there, but now we have the right personnel."

You can hear the passion in Montoya's voice. He wants to be known for more than being the butt of jokes as the driver who ran into the jet dryer and barely escaped the fiery blaze in the 2012 Daytona 500.

"He loves his family, he loves his job, he loves his racing," Heroy says. "Look at his hobbies. If he's going to fly a remote-control helicopter it's going to be the most badass remote helicopter out there.

"He's all-in in everything he does."

But Montoya needs to be more than close to winning to give himself a chance to continue what he loves. He needs to win, and win soon.

Maybe it'll happen at Indianapolis. He recently tested there, and the results after his only other tests at Richmond and Dover were near-wins.

He just needs something good to happen.

"I told [somebody the other day] if we couldn't handle it they wouldn't throw all this s--- at us," Montoya says.

Montoya can handle disappointment. He can't -- won't -- accept failure. This year in particular he's been more patient than others with the setbacks because he knows the team is close to turning the corner.

He just needs to turn the corner.