Brant James
Wednesday March 26th, 2008

Donnie Wingo had been expecting the call. He'd just not been expecting the caller.

Only a day before the 2006 Nextel Cup race at Chicagoland, the crew chief had been told by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team manager Tony Glover that Casey Mears' replacement in the No. 42 Dodge would ring him soon on his cell. It was widely known throughout the shop that Ganassi had coveted Andretti Green Racing driver Dario Franchitti and had recruited the Scot through back channels to leave IndyCar for NASCAR. Franchitti, Wingo surmised, could provide some stability as the team faced replacing Jamie McMurray and Mears in consecutive Sprint Cup seasons.


"He said, 'Hey, I'm Juan Montoya and I'm going to be your new driver next year','' Wingo said, smiling at the recollection. "I was thrilled."

And so began one of the more oddly functional marriages in the Sprint Cup garage.

Montoya, 32, is from Bogota; Wingo, 48, from Spartanburg, S.C., which is 93 miles, and not so foreign, from Columbia, but thousands of miles and worlds apart from Colombia.

Culturally and professionally there appeared no middle ground. Wingo's and Montoya's accents are among the most distinctive in a stew of dialects that resonate through the garage. Confusion should have ruled. But aside from the occasional "understeer" rather than "tight," and a few "affirmatives," the partnership worked almost immediately. Montoya, a former CART and Indianapolis 500 champion, won road course races in the Nextel Cup and Busch Series as a rookie.

Back for their second season together in the renamed Sprint and Nationwide series, it's time to think Chase for the Championship, at least for Ganassi.

"People thought that I would have a hard time understanding him, and 99.9 percent of the time, I'm the only one that understands ... anything he says," Wingo said. "They all ask, 'What he say? What he say?' and I can usually repeat it verbatim. It just comes from working together and kind of knowing what he's thinking most of the time, so I pretty much know what he's going to say."

Wingo has spent 25 years developing that prescience. He won his first race as a crew chief with driver Morgan Shepherd at Bud Moore Racing in 1990, and later two more with Geoffrey Bodine. He joined Ganassi in '03 as McMurray produced 13 top-10s in a rookie-of-the-year campaign. They finished 11th in points in '04 and 12th in '05 before McMurray left the team and was replaced by Mears, who bolted for Hendrick Motorsports after '06.

The prospect of finding stability with Montoya in an organization that, in three years, had turned over its entire driver lineup -- and added Franchitti this season to replace David Stremme -- was attractive to Wingo. Montoya's Cup win at Sonoma, Calif., was the organization's first in five seasons.

"We'd been through McMurray, through Casey, and we'd had pretty good years, and we didn't know what was going to happen. Then when a guy of this caliber and talent comes in, it gives everybody a different outlook,'' Wingo said.

Montoya acknowledges the connection, but finds it "amazing."

"For me, it was a 100-percent natural," Montoya said. "At the beginning it was really hard because everything was so different. The wording was so different, the accent is different. The terms they use, I was like, "What the heck are they talking about?' A lot of times I was like, 'What is that?' The A arm. The A arm for me is a wishbone."

Quickly but meticulously groomed for his full-season NASCAR debut in '07 by testing and running limited ARCA, Busch and Nextel Cup events in '06, Montoya took three three Cup top-fives in '07 en route to being named Cup rookie of the year. He finished second in the Brickyard 400, falling three seconds short of becoming the first to win that race and the Indy 500. Montoya finished 20th in points, leading Ganassi to declare, then re-affirm in different terms, that '08 is a "Chase or bust'' scenario.

Though 19th in the driver standings, Montoya's just 86 points out of 12th -- the Chase boundary -- with two season changes, several national holidays and 21 races until the playoff field is set. His finishes have improved slightly each week since a 32nd-place finish in the Daytona 500. He finished eighth at Martinsville -- site of Sunday's race -- last fall.

While Ganassi applied pressure this preseason, his strong-minded charge -- contending he doesn't need to prove himself to anyone -- discussed more modest goals in what is a career and lifestyle transformation.

"Am I expecting to do great things this year? Do I want to do great things? Yes," Montoya said. "Am I expecting to do great things? Personally, no. I am just expecting to bring the team forward from where we are. I feel being a rookie we did a decent job for what the team could do. But I don't want to run 20th. Chip doesn't want to run 20th and Dario doesn't want to run 20th; neither does [teammate] Reed [Sorenson]. We need to work harder to have a better car so we can finish 10th, 15th. If we finish 15th, 14th, 13th [in '08] and we don't make the Chase, I think it was progress. We're going in the right direction. If we finish 25th, we failed."

Wingo said a testing crash at Kentucky Speedway in '06 alleviated any doubts that Montoya could transition to stock cars. Minutes after losing control by himself in a corner and destroying his car, Montoya was running tenths quicker in a back-up, Wingo said, still plumbing the edge of his new discipline. That includes absorbing every bit of information an old hand can offer, Wingo said, because "he doesn't have any preconceived notions."

Certainly, Montoya has been, and is, known to carp and whine. His rants can be as salty and pointed as any. Sometimes it's for the best Wingo is the only one that discerns every word. But Montoya's candor and uncontrived willingness to assert himself has created a refreshing working environment, Wingo said, adding no driver has ever pushed him harder.

"He's a guy that motivates people. He pushes people to that next level,'' Wingo said. "He screams louder than any driver I've probably ever worked with. He'll raise more hell about the car than any driver I've worked with when he's leading the race or doing whatever, but at the end, whether we finish first, last or indifferent, he's a gracious guy. He gets out and he thanks everybody for the job they did and I think that's pretty cool because you just don't see that much anymore these day."

Montoya, not one for shyness, was surprised when Ganassi gave him Wingo's cell number and the instructions to facilitate his own introduction. But perhaps the abrupt informality ultimately advanced the relationship. There was certainly no time to form any of those preconceived notions they've since avoided.

"Chip told me, 'Call your new crew chief. His name is Donnie.'," he recalled. "I think it's important, because this relationship is what drives the whole team.

"He was like, 'Oh, nice to meet you.' We talked a little bit and he said, 'Looking forward to next year. Should be exciting, and that was it."

So far, good call.

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