After he made the Chase in 2009, the common school of thought on Juan Pablo Montoya was that he was going to be the next open-wheel driver to make it big in NASCAR. However, since then he’s been flirting with the opposite label: “bust.” With only eight top-10 finishes in 2011, Montoya wound up 21st in the final standings, backpedaling to the worst season since his sophomore year in 2008. Things got so bad that the Colombian wasn’t even a contender on his one specialty, the road courses, posting an average finish of 14.5, leading only six laps combined at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Car owner Chip Ganassi is making changes to the organization to try and change that trend, but it will be an uphill battle. Last summer, the No. 42 team underwent a crew chief change, swapping out Brian Pattie for first-time head wrench Jim Pohlman, without any noticeable improvement. In fact, Montoya peaked at 13th in the standings after Kentucky in July, just two races before Pattie’s departure, and made a slow slide downward the remainder of the year. Two poles were the only accomplishments to hang his hat on.
So 2012 finds Pohlman out and Chris Heroy in, with Ganassi hoping the third time’s the charm. Heroy comes to EGR from Hendrick Motorsports, where his claim to fame was heading Mark Martin’s 2009 renaissance as head engineer. Martin won five times that season and ran second in the Cup Series standings at age 50.
Used to the even-tempered elder statesman, the rookie crew chief has a different mission this year: reining in Montoya’s trademark aggression. The knock on this driver is that he can’t go the full distance without losing patience and letting his emotions get the best of him. It’s amazing that Montoya finished all 36 races last season after being involved in several scrapes to the point that his peers isolated him in the garage area. Most drivers refuse to speak with him, even now, and the veteran had to threaten a lawsuit after Ryan Newman threw a punch inside the NASCAR hauler following a spring incident in Richmond.
Ganassi still believes in Montoya, though, signing the former Indy 500 winner to a long-term extension while retaining sponsor Target. Shop execs weren’t so lucky, as veteran NASCAR leaders Steve Hmiel, Tony Glover and head engineer Ed Nathman were among those ousted at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Removing that familiarity is a bit of a risk, leaving little for Montoya to fall back on when it comes to making NASCAR progress. At least there are still two road course races every year, leaving Montoya as a “wild card” longshot to make the Chase. But you can’t get in the playoffs if you still don’t run well everywhere else.
What the Competition is Saying
Entering his sixth full season in the Sprint Cup Series, one question seems to remain about Montoya’s NASCAR career: “Is he ever going to win an oval race in a stock car? Ever?” A perennial threat at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, Montoya has yet to seal the deal on an oval track, despite strong runs.
One crew chief says, “A crew chief change in the middle of the season did little to change the disappointing season, but could bringing on former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy make the difference?”
Another crew chief says, “One problem Montoya’s got is he’s got a lot of enemies, not because they’re jealous of what he’s done but because the way he drives makes them mad. A lot of times, when Montoya needs a break, no one’s out there to give him one.”
Top 5s: 2
Top 10s: 8
Laps Led: 125
Laps Completed: 10,602
Lead Lap Finishes: 20
Bonus Points: 15
Races Led: 15
Average Start: 18.2
Average Finish: 18.5
After First 26 Races: 18th
Final Points Standing: 21st
Driver Rating: 77.2 (21st)