Calmer, more focused Montoya showing big improvement in Cup
Biggest challenge for Juan Pablo Montoya: Changing his mental approach in Cup
Montoya has learned about the differences between F1, Cup from fellow drivers
Montoya's biggest goal for the season will be notching a win in an oval race
Move over and let a car pass? Juan Pablo Montoya wouldn't consider it when then-crew chief Brad Parrott told him to do it during a radio exchange in his first full NASCAR Nationwide season in 2007.
"Hell, no," Montoya said. Parrott's words went against everything Montoya had learned in 15 years of racing, from the early karting days in his native Colombia to championships in Europe's Formula 3000 and CART's Champ Cars to a six-season run in Formula One, in which he won seven races.
Montoya led 167 of 200 laps in winning the Indy 500 in 2000. That's the way single-seater, formula-style drivers learn to race, never surrendering a position without a fight. Montoya came to NASCAR directly from F1, where pit stops last six seconds and are for tires and fuel. Adjustments to the car are never part of the plan. The races are two hours long or less. Nothing he'd done prepared Montoya for the radical differences he found in Sprint Cup, whose races are marathons by comparison.
Move over, surrender? Why not just ask him to cut his throat? Montoya's instinct told him never. Montoya's biggest challenge in switching to NASCAR wasn't learning how to handle the differences between formula cars, which were half the weight and had a wider tire patch than stock cars. He's a world class driver and all that was required was seat time. Montoya had Sprint Cup's cars figured out two years ago, when he made the Chase.
The mental approach, a wholesale change in attitude, has been the biggest adjustment for Montoya and, in his fifth Cup season, it looks like he gets it. The driver of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42 is ninth in the points heading into Saturday's race at Richmond.
Sure, it's early. But Montoya hasn't been out of the top-10 since starting the season by finishing sixth in the Daytona 500. He's been third at Las Vegas, fourth at Martinsville and 10th at Auto Club in California. But the race that stood the test of how he's learned patience was Texas, which Montoya said was "the hardest race I have ever had in difficulty in the five years I've been here. It was so hard. The car was a handful, it was really hard."
Montoya finished 13th at Texas, making the most out of a difficult situation. He hasn't done that consistently in the past, sometimes overdriving the car and putting himself into positions that put him and others in the wall.
"Juan has made huge strides, especially in the last 12 months," Brian Pattie, his crew chief since 2008, said. "He's befriended some quality drivers in the garage and they've helped him understand the races are so long. We break it up into thirds. The first third is to establish your position and work on your car. The middle is to click off laps and the last third is when it pays. It doesn't matter if you lead the first 100 laps.
"Juan doesn't have to be aggressive always. He's learned a lot from Mark Martin, that the end of the race is most crucial, race people how they race you, communicate and work on the car and see what you've got at the end. Our feeling is, hey, we're gong to every race to win and that's everybody's goal, but we need to finish in the top-15. We'll accept that. We ran between eighth and 15th at Texas. I'm a realist, I speak the truth, and we go to do the best job we can every race, and if we don't have a car to win, if we can have a top-15 on a bad day, we should be fine."
Montoya's Chase run -- eighth in the final points -- in 2009 had seven top-5s and 18 top-10s. He had six top-5s and 14 top-10s in finishing 17th last season. Montoya didn't have a DNF in 2009 and had eight last season.
"Last year was an eye opener for us," Pattie said. "We were really, really fast, but had eight DNFs. That's a stupid amount that won't get you anywhere in this series. Juan's future in NASCAR is bright because he learned the hard way from last year. The DNFs were the stark difference between 2009 and 2010.
"We won at Watkins Glen last year, but making the Chase is a bigger deal. The Chase is not for one race, it's for 26. To win a championship, we have to bring the highs down a little bit and bring the lows way up."
Added Montoya: "We learn lots that you can't really DNF. We had so many DNFs and so many wrecks and so many things go wrong (in 2010)."
Montoya has been working on staying calmer, more focused.
"We went to Martinsville and they asked me what is your strategy?" Montoya said. "We always do team meetings on race day. I said, 'My strategy today is anger management.' It was. I said, 'If I can get out of here without screaming on the radio or screaming at somebody, I did a really good job.'
"That is what we are doing, trying to run smarter. Learn to pick your battles. You know, the races are so long, that you forget that. Sometimes even at a place like here, you run hard and you run hard and you look and you still have 400 miles to go. It's like, 'What are you doing?' I have been very self-conscious about that and making sure that when the car is not good, get the most out of it, be patient. Don't give up. Let's get to a pit stop, let's try to make some changes. As long as everybody knows I am in it, they will be in it as well. It is working really well."
Montoya also has figured out how to adjust his car in five Cup seasons along with the NASCAR procedures.
"It's a lot to learn," Pattie said. "How the weekend evolves from Friday going through tech to running a much longer race, to restarting in a certain area, to doing double-file restarts. He's learned a lot. Sometimes, we practice in the day and race at night and you have to figure out how to run the car in the day so it's good at night. It's experience and he's gained a lot of knowledge at those type of races.
"Juan has taken everything in. He's a real gifted person, really smart and obviously talented. Every race we do together, I learn something and he learns something."
Montoya's biggest goal is to win an oval race. His ace in the hole is he's a serious threat on the two Cup road races, at Infineon and Watkins Glen.
Winning one of them might be the edge he needs to get into the Chase. But he can guarantee it by being in the top-10 in points after 26 races. Montoya doesn't have a DNF this season. He's more experienced and has matured as a Cup racer. A championship might be a stretch for Montoya, but getting back to the Chase certainly is not.