wasn't happy in F/1. His average finish in the first eight races of 2006 was a
career-worst 8.75--thanks largely to mechanical failures and accidents--and he
was rumored to be on the verge of losing his ride. Montoya had read in a
Canadian newspaper that Casey Mears, one of Ganassi's Nextel Cup drivers, was
leaving at the end of the '06 season for Hendrick Motorsports, which meant that
Ganassi would have a seat to fill. "I hear you're looking for a
driver," Montoya said in his call to Ganassi.
looking," replied the team owner.
you call me?"
Juan Pablo," said Ganassi. "You don't want to drive in NASCAR."
Ganassi had to
end the call because his plane was about to take off, but he told Montoya,
"I'll call you tomorrow." Besides, Ganassi figured that Montoya, an
inveterate prankster, was pulling a fast one. No F/1 driver had ever switched
to racing full time in the Nextel Cup series. To most drivers with a background
in open-wheel racing--such as Montoya, who won the Indy 500 with Ganassi in
2000--F/1 is the gold standard of motor sports.
But when Ganassi
and Montoya chatted again the following day, the driver repeated his desire to
try stock cars. Ganassi still wasn't convinced--until he called Pablo Montoya,
who confirmed that his son wanted to jump to NASCAR. That's when Ganassi gave
Montoya a multiyear contract to drive the number 42 Havoline Dodge.
has raced in the U.S. over the last four months, dozens of yellow-blue-and-red
Colombian flags have followed. They were waving in the stands on Oct. 15 at
Iowa Speedway, in the tiny town of Newton, where he finished 24th in his second
ARCA race. Two weeks later the banners greeted Montoya at Memphis Motorsports
Park, where he made his Busch Series debut and finished 11th. And they
fluttered on Nov. 19 at Miami-Homestead Speedway for Montoya's first Nextel Cup
race. Starting 29th, he blasted through the field and was running as high as
13th before getting bumped into the wall by Ryan Newman and spinning out in a
frightening ball of flames. Montoya escaped uninjured through the driver's-side
window, but in two hours of green-flag racing he had proved to the Cup veterans
that he belonged among them.
"I raced with
him a lot at Miami, and the guy is an amazing talent," says two-time Cup
champion Tony Stewart. "I think he's going to win multiple races this
another Colombian flag was rippling in the wind in the virtually empty stands
at Daytona International Speedway. It was the last day of winter testing for
the 500 at the 2.5-mile oval, and Montoya was fifth on the speed chart. Did he
believe he could become the first foreign driver to win the Great American Race
this year? "I'll need some luck, but you never know," Montoya said as
he lounged in his hauler. "I've never run side by side with other cars for
500 miles, where it's easy to get caught up in wrecks, but we're pretty
fast." Montoya paused and fiddled with the helmet resting in his lap, then
suddenly looked up and said, "But the great thing is, in racing anything is