There's an unmistakable air of serenity to Juan Pablo Montoya these days. The former Formula One and IndyCar driver from Colombia was anything but at peace when he joined the stock car circuit two years ago. In his rookie season he brazenly wrecked a teammate to win a Nationwide (then Busch) Series race and brawled with Kevin Harvick during a Cup race after the two crashed. Now Montoya is a different man, both on and off the track. There he was, just minutes after Sunday's Allstate 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended in terrible disappointment for him, standing outside of his motor coach in flip-flops and a T-shirt and singing La Cucaracha. As he clowned around with friends, he looked like he could have been at a backyard barbecue. Of course, it's easy to be in high spirits when you're enjoying one of the greatest turnarounds of the 2009 Sprint Cup season.
Montoya had dominated at the Brickyard, leading for 116 of the race's 160 laps. But just as he was on the cusp of his first win of '09 and his second Cup victory ever, Montoya was flagged for speeding on pit road with 35 laps left. The penalty dropped him out of first place and ultimately caused him to finish 11th. It was a foolish mistake, underscoring (as did a brief tirade on his in-car radio) that he's still a work in progress. Yet with six races left in the regular season, Montoya is 10th in points and poised to make the Chase for the first time.
Montoya, 32, arrived in NASCAR with great expectations. He'd won the 2000 Indy 500 and the '03 Monaco Grand Prix, but in the Cup series he struggled to adjust to the heavier stock cars, slipping to 25th in the standings last year after finishing 20th as a rookie. His performance began to improve late in 2008, though, after his team owner, Chip Ganassi, replaced crew chief Jimmy Elledge with Brian Pattie, who had been a crew chief in the Nationwide Series. Pattie's fresh perspective has been especially helpful to Montoya. With input from his driver, Pattie and his team built race cars during the off-season that suited Montoya's driving style, and this season Montoya has already had as many top 10s (nine) as he had in his first two years on the circuit combined.
On the track the biggest change in Montoya is that he's no longer the most aggressive driver in the series. In F/1 the opportunities to pass are few, so Montoya was conditioned to go all-or-nothing when the chance to overtake arose. In his first two years in NASCAR he caused several wrecks. But this season Montoya has been far more patient. As a result he hasn't triggered a single crash. It has taken time, but Montoya has earned the respect of the garage—a must in order to compete for the championship.
"If you look at the guys that have come from the open-wheel world [in the past few seasons], Juan's done better by far than anyone else," says Jimmie Johnson, the winner at Indy (box). "I see him making the Chase, and I see him being a threat."
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Cup analysis from Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan SI.com/bonus