What we learned at Watkins Glen
Juan Pablo Montoya's win soothed a lot of nerves at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Marcos Ambrose continued his inability to close out a win on road course
Of the Cup's top seven drivers, only Kevin Harvick has been consistent of late
113 races. 732 laps led. Two agonizing Indianapolis defeats, nine second- and third-place finishes, and 16 DNFs for crashes. With those kinds of numbers, it's no wonder frustration over Juan Pablo Montoya's NASCAR winless drought was reaching a fever pitch within Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
But, one day after a Ganassi meeting to boost morale, relief finally came. Montoya was outright dominant in Sunday's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips At the Glen, leading 74 of 90 laps to cruise to his first victory in over three years. Was that enough to mend fences with crew chief Brian Pattie after the two were bordering on outright war the last two weeks? Their on-again, off-again , on-again relationship leads off five things we learned at Watkins Glen.
1.) For Montoya and Brian Pattie, winning cures all ills.
Up to this point in 2010, NASCAR's fourth-year Colombian F-1 convert could have retitled his season "The year of what could have been." Labeled a main contender to stop Jimmie Johnson's streak of four straight titles, the only team the No. 42 has successfully brought down is themselves. From a blown engine that crippled them in the second race at Fontana to a second straight four-tire faux pas last week, this team has shot itself in the foot so much it's amazing the crew still has any toes.
"By race five, we had three DNFs," Montoya recounted after his victory. "You have to be realistic about what's happening. You have to start being more aggressive. A lot of mistakes came, from my part and the team."
Those had long ago knocked him out of Chase contention, leaving the rest of the season all about fighting for wins. But, despite a long line of good cars, getting over that hump proved elusive -- including the infamous four-tire call by crew chief Brian Pattie that turned an Indy domination into self-destruction in a matter of seconds.
"When you go home empty-handed, it's frustrating," said the driver, who claimed last week he was over Indy in 15 minutes but later admitted close calls can bug him. "Sometimes, I even talk myself out of a good result."
Those flashes of frustration went public the last two weeks, anger over Pattie's mistakes helping spur this week's Ganassi chat. Have the two finally patched up their differences going forward?
"Trophies mean a lot," said Pattie, who added the relationship was never seriously strained. "When you're passionate about winning races, the closer we got, the worse it got for frustration level. We've led a lot of laps, led a lot of races this year."
"I want to be, you know, the Hendricks, those guys. I want to be consistent week in, week out, no matter if we are at a half-mile racetrack, mile-and-a-half, road course or a speedway." So does Montoya, and Sunday's victory was a huge step in that direction. And, with the Chase out of the picture, the No. 42 has the speed to become a major wild card this fall, scooping up two or three more right under the noses of the sport's main title contenders.
"I think we can learn a lot this season on how to execute a little better," Montoya said. I agree ... and step one is to make sure this marriage never lets emotions get the better of them again.
2.) On a road course, Marcos Ambrose is always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
At one point Sunday, it looked like Montoya would fall victim to a familiar face on road courses: Ambrose. Pacing himself after starting 11th, the Australian picked off his foes one-by-one, then mowed down Montoya at a pace of seven-tenths of a second to set up a thrilling battle for the lead mid-race. Neither driver gave an inch, with Ambrose darting around his rival's back bumper, picking his spot for the better part of ten minutes before finally taking the lead on Lap 41. Finally, it looked like the demons of Infineon - where he was in control until stalling the car under caution with seven laps left -- would be put to rest.
"It was a lot of fun in the middle part of the race," he said. "You could tell we weren't running for a championship, because I just wore everything out trying to pass him."
But that toll Ambrose took on his equipment would ultimately cost him as once again, with victory on the doorstep he maintained a troubling inability to close the deal. Montoya absolutely pummeled him on restarts, taking the lead back on Lap 46 after a caution and consistently getting the jump the rest of the way. Every yellow flag would follow a familiar pattern: on the first green-flag lap afterwards, the No. 42 would get a jump so big, it looked like Ambrose was standing still, dropping to third or worse while Montoya in front would build a lead of a second or more in the course of a single lap.
"We lost the handle on it after that last stop," Ambrose claimed afterwards, eventually forced to settle for third after Kurt Busch nipped him on the final lap. "From the moment I rolled out, it just didn't quite feel right. I don't know if it was a bad set of tires, or the track changed on us, I'm not too sure."
Regardless of the real reason, this pending free agent missed out on a key moment to seal his NASCAR future for 2011. A win would have made it easy for Ford to pony up some cash for one of their favorites even without primary sponsorship. Now, even though the Blue Oval crowd wants him back, their investment becomes a slightly harder sell. Ambrose may have three top-3 finishes in three career Watkins Glen starts, but has an empty trophy case to show for it -- making this Sunday the race we'll look back on if he's been running races in his home country next season.
3.) Clint Bowyer's broken truck arm put a lot of Chase pieces back together for others.
Speaking of missed opportunities, Bowyer has this race and Infineon to thank for putting his Chase chances in serious jeopardy. At both road courses, a broken rear part helped turn a top finish into total disaster, including Sunday's broken truck arm mount that negated a drive from 34th to well inside the top 15. Winding up one lap down in 32nd after spending time inside the garage, Bowyer fell outside the top 12 in points, dropping ten markers behind Mark Martin in the standings. "The guys did a good job getting it welded up and getting back out there," he said of their effort. "But, as far as I'm concerned, it's catastrophic."
Not so for Martin and others who have new life breathed into their sagging playoff hopes. Despite a solid track record of 16 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, the 51-year-old struggled a second straight year at the Glen, with a 19th-place finish barely enough to bypass Bowyer. Behind him, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray charged to within 83 and 94 points of 12th, respectively, the closest either challenger has been to the playoffs in over a month.
"There's a lot of pressure on us," said Newman. "But it's still a great race for that position. Everybody is racing hard."
With no clear-cut favorite over the final four races, it's anyone's guess who could snag that final spot. But notice one name that's dropped out of the discussion completely: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. remains 121 points back after a miserable weekend. Qualifying 40th and running 26th, he dropped to 16th and would need a miracle to pass all four drivers in the final four races to grab a spot.
4.) Will the real title favorite please stand up?
With the playoffs looming, the series' elite are supposed to be using this stretch as a tune-up for when it really counts. But if the motto, "Don't do anything in practice you wouldn't do in a game" rings true, the supposed 2010 title favorites have spent the last three weeks virtually tripping over themselves, leaving us scratching our heads as to who, exactly, is capable of winning it all.
Consider the top seven in Sprint Cup points -- Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch -- have combined for three top-5 finishes total the last three weeks. Two of those are Harvick's, the lone consistent driver as wrecks, mechanical failures, and downright stinkbomb performances have decimated the rest. On Sunday, they turned toward destroying each other. Hard racing by Kyle Busch and Burton in Turn 11 led to contact with a slowing Johnson up ahead, resulting in a crash that had Hamlin T-Boning the No. 48 with 18 laps remaining.
"A dive bomb. It's so stupid," he said of the wreck. "It's just lack of respect out there. But we are racing for eighth to 10th place. We had a 10th-place car all day." Busch was able to limp home eighth, but he and Hamlin may be in the biggest trouble: neither one has run better than fifth since Michigan nearly two months ago. We've seen drivers struggle only to bounce back during the playoffs before ... but that's a really long slump to roll the dice with come September.
5.) Road course ringers may soon be a thing of the past.
For the last two decades, Infineon and Watkins Glen car owners have turned toward road course specialists from other series to make a one-off start in NASCAR. The theory is their experience can give their car a much-needed boost, especially over an oval track veteran who is simply struggling to give them top-20s. But none of these "ringers" has scored a Cup victory in the modern era, and Sunday was one of their worst performances. Only Grand Am's Andy Lally (18th) ran inside the top 20, and P.J. Jones, Ron Fellows, and Boris Said failed to finish -- Said after heavy contact with Tony Stewart through the esses.
"I had a great time in this car," exclaimed Said, who was filling in for Brian Vickers in Red Bull's No. 83. "It was a great opportunity for me to be in a top team. They gave me wings, but I didn't expect to be flying around in circles."
But will Said and others ever get a chance to fly again? Sunday's failing grade may mark the end of an era, the Top-35 rule combined with reluctance for owners to spend extra cash keeping these road course ringers all but sidelined for 2011 and beyond.
Race Grade: B. It's hard to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about Watkins Glen, with attendance up and racing fierce around the Cup circuit's top road course. But, with Montoya turning the end of the race into a runaway, it was a tame final chapter in a race where most expected a wilder ending.