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Juan Pablo Montoya's driving has foes fuming—ask Kevin Harvick—but the rookie is fast learning the Cup ropes
FOR EVERYONE who wanted to see Juan Pablo Montoya confronted about his aggressive driving, to see the most ballyhooed rookie in NASCAR history taught a lesson about the appropriate conditions under which honorable men trade paint, Kevin Harvick was more than willing to oblige. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong time. After a wreck on Lap 73 at Watkins Glen on Sunday sidelined both drivers in the Nextel Cup race, Harvick (who would return to finish 36th) got out of his car and right into Montoya's face, threatening to "kick his ass" as he instigated a shoving match in front of the Turn 1 grandstand. But the wreck wasn't the fault of Montoya (who finished 39th)—Martin Truex Jr. had sent Montoya's number 42 Dodge skidding into Harvick with a bump from behind as the field entered the tight righthander on a restart. After viewing a replay of the incident, a chagrined Harvick defended himself by saying, "It just seems like he runs over somebody every week."
Few in the garage would argue. Montoya's growing reputation for bending fenders is overshadowing the rapid strides he has made in his switch from sleek Formula One machines to unwieldy stock cars. In March he won a Busch Series race in Mexico City after running leader—and teammate—Scott Pruett off the road. That was followed in April by an eighth-place finish at Texas and a spinout of Tony Stewart. Even Montoya's first Cup win, at Sonoma in June, included a run-in with Kurt Busch. To date, Montoya, who has one win and four top 10 finishes (and is the leading rookie in the point standings, in 19th place), has been chastised by drivers both prominent ( Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman) and obscure ( A.J. Allmendinger and Tony Raines). And, to NASCAR's dismay, he is frequently greeted with boos during driver introductions.
As expected, Montoya has been strong on road courses (winning at Mexico City and Sonoma), but he struggled early on the oval tracks that make up the heart of the Cup schedule. By his own estimation he had driven such tracks just 15 times before this year. To keep Montoya under control early in the season, crew chief Donnie Wingo set him up in tight, or understeering, race cars. But after Montoya ran fifth at Atlanta in just his fifth Cup race, Wingo began to loosen the car up, making it faster by allowing the rear end to swing out through corners. Montoya has remained inconsistent on ovals as he tests his limits with the freer setup, but Wingo points to a 15th-place finish at Chicago and a second-place at Indy last month as signs that his driver is finding his groove. "He's getting more confident every week," says Wingo.
The irony of Montoya's bad-boy label is that it was NASCAR's reputation for no-holds-barred competition that lured him from F/1, where races tend to resemble parades. "How hard is it to pass a car in Formula One?" he said last year when he announced his move to Nextel Cup racing. "You pass them and you touch wheels, and you're an animal." Perhaps Montoya has been a touch too willing to rub fenders with his fellow drivers. The only remedy is for him to become as formidable on ovals as he is on road courses. Wiping people out to secure a 28th-place finish is unacceptable. Wiping them out in the service of winning? That's racing.
ONLY AT SI.COM Mark Beech's Power Rankings and Racing Fan columns.