Looking to Chase Again in 2010: Montoya on the Move

Montoya speeding at Indy

A pit road speeding penalty probably cost Montoya the victory at this year's Brickyard 400 at Indy (photo courtesy: Chris Trotman, Getty Images Sport)

Qualifying for NASCAR’s 2009 Sprint Cup Chase has to go down as the highlight of the year for Colombian native-turned-South Florida resident Juan Pablo Montoya. And with Top 5 finishes in five of the first six 2009 Chase races, he is being considered among the front runners to contend for the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship, which again will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 21).

With all the preseason turmoil and upheaval following a merger between Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc.—combined with the relative poor form of stable mate Martin Truex, Jr.—it’s a credit to Montoya, crew chief Brian Pattie and the entire No. 42 team that they ran so well in 2009. Indeed, until a chain-reaction incident with Mark Martin in Chase Race 5 at Charlotte, Montoya was enough of a threat through the first half of the Chase to have fans and pundits seriously considering his chances of winning NASCAR’s biggest prize on his hometown track at Homestead-Miami Speedway during November’s series-crowning Ford Championship Weekend.

"We got to a point where we are competitive," Montoya said. "But what's next? What are we doing next to make ourselves better?"

Montoya’s NASCAR campaign can be divided into a tale of two seasons. The first 26 races were all about making his first ever Chase, as he throttled back his natural instinct of his aggressive driving style to ensure that he scored the points necessary to make NASCAR’s “playoffs.” After a third-place finish at Atlanta over Labor Day Weekend, Montoya carried a cushion of less than 100 points heading into the Chase cutoff race at Richmond, but a conservative 19th-place result in Virginia proved the clincher as Montoya made NASCAR history – the first non-American born driver ever to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The one moment of the season that had Montoya fans wondering what could have been occurred at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of July. An Indy 500 winner in his previous career as an open-wheeler, Montoya had as dominant a car as he ever has in his three years in NASCAR, leading 116 of the first 124 laps at the Brickyard before a simple mental error—speeding on pit road—derailed his bid to become the first driver to win at Indy in both stock cars and open-wheel machines.

“Being conservative is really about getting into the Chase,” said Montoya. “In some weeks it is OK to finish 13th because that may be all you can get from the car. And because the season is so long, it becomes much more of marathon than a sprint. Consistency really pays off in NASCAR.”

That said, after making the Chase Montoya established himself as a bona fide contender for a future Spring Cup title, as he was the only driver to score Top 5 finishes each of the first four playoff races. Wrecks, however, in three of the next four events left the No. 42 team’s Championship hopes in disrepair.

“Once you are there [in the Chase], then you can take more risks,” Montoya remarked. “This sport is about winning the Championship, and you cannot win the Championship without making the Chase.”

In those final races leading up to the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Montoya drove to a third place finish at Martinsville in late October and picked up his 18th Top 10 result at Phoenix in November—a career best for the Miami resident after totaling nine Top 10 finishes in the previous two seasons combined.

While Montoya showed leaps and bounds of maturity on the race track, his Ford 400 run at Homestead-Miami Nov. 21 revealed that his aggressive streak remains firmly intact. At the Championship finale, on-track tangles with Tony Stewart led to each driver intentionally wrecking the other, which resulted in a two-lap penalty for aggressive driving and a 38th-place finish by Montoya.

But in the end, it was an eighth-place 2009 Sprint Cup standings finish for Montoya in pronouncing himself a title contender to watch in 2010 and beyond. NASCAR’s ultimate Champion next year again will be crowned on Montoya’s “home track” of Homestead-Miami Speedway, on Nov. 21, 2010. Heading into his fourth full season, Montoya enters his fourth NASCAR campaign having accomplished a trifecta in 2009 that should serve him well: the experience of making the Chase, the stability of a solid returning team and a steady sponsor in Target.

“My goal next year is to be able to match the performance we had this year,” Montoya said recently. “Of course, you want more things. But I think if we can create stability on the team good enough to be able to repeat our performance—that it wasn't just a one-year thing—I'll be more than happy. Of course, I want to win races and everything, but the way we ran over the past few years [vs. the results] this year, it's been incredible. We got to be able to match the performance. I think that's the key thing for the team for the future.”

All three of NASCAR’s premier racing series—the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series—again will crown Champion during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19-21). Stay tuned to www.THEChampionshipTrack.com or call toll free (866) 409-RACE for more information.

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