McMurray joins ex-foe Montoya at EGR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray weren't the best of friends when they left Bristol Motor Speedway in March. They weren't even talking, and as far as McMurray was concerned, they might never again.

Let them rehash.

"He had old tires; I had new tires," Montoya recalled of the race. "You had about 15 cars in a line, and I got there and I ran out of patience."

So he punted McMurray. Spun him out.

McMurray was angry, so angry he wasn't interested in hearing Montoya's explanation or apology.

Now they're teammates.

"Probably in Juan's case, it was good that [Chip] Ganassi hired me because the Chase would've been hell," said McMurray, jokingly referring to the revenge he might have sought against the Colombian driver in NASCAR's 10-race playoff had he not been set to join Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

Yes, a lot has changed at EGR. Martin Truex Jr. left for Michael Waltrip Racing, and McMurray returned to the organization -- formerly known as Ganassi Racing -- where he had the best three years of his Sprint Cup career before moving to Roush Fenway Racing in 2006.

He now talks to Montoya on an almost-daily basis. He even shared a ride with him in the Rolex 24.

"We really have a good relationship, and we understand each other," Montoya said. "Chip is really committed to building the team. Jamie is a guy with talent who can bring a lot to the table, so I'm pretty excited to have him as a teammate."

Montoya was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2009 season, making the Chase for the first time and improving 17 spots to eighth in points. With six races remaining he was third, only 58 points behind eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.

He made the Chase with a simple strategy: show improvement at each track during the first 26 races and don't give away points by being too aggressive and making mistakes that turn good days into bad ones.

He stepped it up in the Chase with top-4 finishes in the first four races and five in the first six. That's how he and crew chief Brian Pattie, who persuaded Montoya to drive more conservatively to start last year, hope to begin this season.

"Now that we know what he has, we're going to push a little harder in the first 26 [races]," Pattie said.

That doesn't mean Montoya will digress to old habits that often put him in bad situations during his first two Cup seasons.

"You have to be smart," he said. "From where we came to where we were last year, it was a huge step. Of course, I want more."

Ganassi doesn't expect Montoya or his team to backslide. He sees the progression of the former Indianapolis 500 winner similar to that of his Cup organization, building one brick at a time.

"The thing I like about Juan is he rarely if ever goes backwards," Ganassi said. "His driving career is like the brick thing. His bricks are always on top of each other. I've never known his bricks to fall down and him to start over.

"That's why I look forward to 2010."

Ganassi also is looking forward to his second tenure with McMurray. He doesn't hesitate to remind that McMurray and several other drivers who left his organization the past few years had better numbers with him than the teams they went to.

McMurray's numbers weren't even close. He had 18 top-5s and 46 top-10s in three seasons with Ganassi. He had 11 top-5s and 32 top-10s in four seasons with Roush Fenway.

His average finish in points was 12th at Ganassi, compared to 20th at Roush Fenway.

"I'm really glad to have him back," Ganassi said. "I like his attitude. I've always liked his attitude. He's a racer, and that helps a lot. … My expectations are the same as last year, that we'll try to improve and put two cars in the Chase."

Putting one car in the Chase last season seemed unrealistic. Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged less than a couple of months before the Daytona 500, and skeptics were less than optimistic.

"We had a goal of putting a car in the Chase," Ganassi said. "I don't think many gave us a chance at that. But it was a goal, and with everything that was going on a year ago in the sport and in the country [from an economy standpoint], it was pretty important to have a goal.

"The guys in the shop did a helluva job. Steve Hmiel, Tony Glover, Brian Pattie, those are the guys that are in the trenches and get the work done and have to make the tough decisions."

They also energized two organizations that some doubted would survive. McMurray saw that when he returned, and it helped him recapture some of the confidence he'd lost.

That they made him feel welcome also contributed.

"You feel like it's a sincere 'we're glad to have you back' rather than just a formality," he said.

The sincerity went all the way to Montoya.

"We had our differences," McMurray said, referring to Bristol again. "But I look forward to having him as a teammate."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.