Cory Mccartney
Thursday March 15th, 2012

It's now part of the car graveyard in the woods surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sprawling Cleveland, N.C. property, the mangled No. 42 Chevrolet sitting adjacent to Junior's replica Old West town.

The car was part of one of the indelible moments in Daytona 500 history as Juan Pablo Montoya collided with a truck carrying a jet dryer -- and 200 gallons of jet fuel -- setting off a fire that engulfed Turn 3 of the track.

"I don't think in NASCAR you're going to hit any harder than I did," Montoya said.

Unfortunately, supplying that bit of water-cooler talk, and another lawn ornament for Earnhardt, is one of the rare times Montoya has been relevant on the track the past three seasons.

Since his one and only Chase appearance in 2009, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has been on a steady decline. His top-five and top-10 finishes, laps led and place in the final points standings have all faded, and he had only two top-fives, eight top-10s and led all of 125 laps in finishing 21st in 2011.

The decline has brought about wholesale changes with the No. 42. Former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy has taken over as crew chief with just four holdovers from last season: the spotter, the hauler driver and the shock and tire specialists.

So far, that house cleaning has yet to pay off with better results.

Montoya currently sits 24th in the standings -- one spot ahead of his EGR teammate Jamie McMurray, who himself is hoping for a bounce-back season -- after finishing 36th at Daytona, 11th at Phoenix and 25th last weekend in Las Vegas. His new crew hasn't ranked higher than 17th in average pit stop time in any race.

The biggest problem facing the No. 42 has been an inability to get better as the race wears on. He's had an average running position of 23rd and has managed to move up just 1.3 places in the last 10 percent of events. Factor in his 74 quality passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), which ranks 28th in the Sprint Cup Series, and Montoya is quite literally playing catch-up.

It's certainly not where many thought Montoya would be when he made his leap to full-time Cup racing in 2007.

With all due respect to Danica Patrick, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti, in his move to the series from open-wheel racing, Montoya may have been under more pressure than any driver since Tony Stewart.

A former Formula 1 driver, CART titleholder and Indianapolis 500 champ, Montoya came to NASCAR with a pedigree and a worldwide following -- the Colombian's 500,000-plus Twitter followers rank second only to Patrick in the garage -- but as great as he's been everywhere he's raced, it hasn't completely translated to Cup.

Montoya has two career wins, but both of them have come on road courses, and he's totaled five top-fives in 57 starts on the intermediate tracks that dominate the schedule, with three of them coming at Atlanta.

Then there's the matter of aggression.

Even with the inclusion of the wild-card spots for the drivers with the most wins, consistency that has always been the surest path to the Chase, and it's in direct contrast with Montoya's style of racing -- "If you have the right car, you can make the right moves, and if you make the right moves, you can have the right results," he recently said.

His tactics haven't exactly gone over well with his Cup brethren. He's feuded with the likes of Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, the latter of which allegedly included Newman punching Montoya in the NASCAR hauler last year at Darlington.

Montoya managed to keep it all in check when he made the Chase three seasons ago. He rose as high as third in the standings before it all fell apart with three finishes of 35th or worse over the last six races to finish eighth. He's been fighting to get to that level since, spending all of nine weeks in the top 10 in points the last three seasons.

There have been some glimmers of hope so far in '12. Montoya ran as high as fourth at Phoenix and sixth at Daytona and his 11th in the second week of the season was his best finish in 10 races, dating to a ninth last season at Loudon.

Still, the question hangs there: Have we seen the best of Montoya, who's now 36, or is it simply a matter of Earnhardt Ganassi putting everything in place around him? The more he struggles, the more you have to wonder if Montoya can contend on a weekly basis.

Is It Time To Start Worrying About Kahne?

As detailed two weeks back, this opening stretch of the schedule has been a strong indicator of who's going to make and who's going to miss the Chase.

Apparently a number of stars didn't get the memo, as several drivers with playoff appearances to their credit are lagging behind.

Just look at who's off to a slow start. There's Kyle Busch (12th in the points), Clint Bowyer (14th), Jeff Burton (15th), Jeff Gordon (17th), Brad Keselowski (21st), Kasey Kahne (26th) and Kurt Busch (29th); Jimmie Johnson is 23rd, though there are some extenuating circumstances at play there.

It's a staggering list, and one that elicits various degrees of concern after just three races, but it does seem worrisome for one of the biggest names to change teams this season in Kahne.

Expected to be a force in his first year with top-level equipment at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has been beseeched by bad luck in the No. 5. He wrecked three cars in Speedweeks, including one in the Daytona 500 that led to him finishing 38 laps down, in 34th, after smacking the wall early at Phoenix. Then last week at Las Vegas he followed up his first pole at HMS by getting collected in an incident with four laps to go and wound up 19th.

It's not time to hit the panic button in HMS' Concord, N.C. headquarters, but there may not be much relief on the horizon. Five of the next seven tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Richmond and Talladega) rank as Kahne's worst based on career average finish.

This much is certain: Kahne finds himself in a position few would have envisioned for him during Year 1 at HMS.

Bristol Pick

Kyle Busch. Nowhere is Rowdy more dominant than at Thunder Valley. He boasts a career-best five wins at Bristol Motor Speedway, including victories in four of the last six races, and you have to go all the way back to March 16, 2008, to find a time when he didn't finish in the top nine. More impressively, he's led at least a lap in 11 of 12 trips to BMS. Expect more of the same and another trip to Victory Lane for Busch.

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