Montoya's struggles could just be the storm before the calm
Juan Pablo Montoya's stuggles continued with a 38th-place finish at Charlotte
In 2009, JPM racked up nine top-10s in 14 races to move from 15th into the Chase
Joey Logano could be this year's surprise Chase contender, if he can toughen up
1. Juan Pablo Montoya lives for windsurfing. He tweets about it, spends his downtime on a board in Miami's Biscayne Bay, just a short stroll from his penthouse suite -- and the way the Colombian's season is going, he may soon be able to turn his focus more toward wetsuits than firesuits.
After a 38th-place finish at Charlotte, Montoya is 20th in the Cup standings and is 206 points behind Ryan Newman for 12th at the midpoint of the Chase qualifying portion of the schedule. Saying it's been disappointing would be like saying Gary Busey is a little south of sane; it's a massive understatement.
You can argue that next to Jimmie Johnson, the man who hoisted the Sprint Cup Trophy for the fourth straight year in 2009, no driver made a bigger impression during the Chase than Montoya. In his third year in the series, Montoya made the 10-race playoff and rose to third, and while he imploded over the last six races, it was hard to deny he planted the seed that he could be an immediate challenger for the title.
To be fair, it's not as if JPM hasn't completely lived up to the precedent he set last season; his four top-5s are tied for seventh-best in the series and he's been fast, with an average start of 14.2, which is among Cup's top 11 drivers. But the good just can't outweigh the bad; Charlotte marked Montoya's seventh finish of 26th or worse, which includes four DNFs.
Before we start discounting Montoya's chances of salvaging his season, it is worth noting that a year ago, he rattled off nine top 10s in a span of 14 races to vault from 15th to a Chase spot. But doing it for a second straight year? That would be nothing short of miraculous considering that consistency -- and some mechanical troubles at Fontana and Dover -- has been Montoya's biggest nemesis, which has only been compounded when you look at what teammate Jamie McMurray has been able to accomplish, finishing second in three of the last five races.
Last season, Montoya publicly maintained he would follow a simple path set out by Brian Pattie to make the 10-race playoff: be conservative and focus on the big picture. It isn't exciting, but it was effective. But Montoya's no longer in a position to play it safe, meaning expect a return to the aggressive Montoya, who drew a two-lap penalty in last season's finale, beginning Sunday at Pocono.
Can letting Montoya loose salvage his season or will it simply add to what's been one of this year's most disappointing storylines? It may be too late for JPM, whose year looks, to borrow from the windsurfing vernacular, skunked.
2. While we're on the subject of the Chase, which driver could be this year's Brian Vickers, the most unlikely member of the 10-race playoff? McMurray, who is 15th, and Martin Truex Jr. who is 14th, are intriguing picks as NASCAR.com suggests, but the driver nobody seems to be paying much attention to is Joey Logano.
He's been showing steady improvement in his second season, posting five top-5s, increasing his year-over-year finish in eight of the first 13 races and he's staying on the track, completing all but 44 laps so far. But maybe most importantly, he's also behind the wheel of the same equipment that has turned Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin into contenders. It may take Logano being a little more aggressive than he's shown 13 races in, leading all of 13 laps, but considering his improvement and the tools at his disposal, Logano could well be your surprise Chaser.
3: Jimmie Johnson's DNF's through the first 13 races
86: Number of races it took Johnson to accumulate three DNFs in the past three seasons
5: J.J.'s consecutive double-digit finishes
100: The last time Johnson had five straight finishes of 10th or worse was from May 27-June 24, 2007, a span of 100 races
Denny Hamlin. What is it, exactly, that Hamlin loves so much about the Poconos? Is he a sucker for the romantic getaways the resort town has to offer? Is he a hiking enthusiast who finds himself venturing to the Blue Mountain Ridge and the Appalachian Trail? Whatever the draw, Hamlin is a force on the 2.5-mile tri-oval with three wins -- he's finished lower than sixth in just two of his eight career starts -- and he has the best average starting position of any active driver (6.6).
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