The question has percolated in the Sprint Cup garage all season, growing in frequency with each passing week: Could this be Juan Pablo Montoya's last season in the series?
Rewind to 2007 when Montoya entered NASCAR as one of the most heralded rookies in recent memory. He was the 2000 Indy 500 champion and a veteran of Formula One, where in 2003 he took the checkered flag in the Monaco Grand Prix, the series' marquee event. NASCAR had plans to make Montoya, a native of Bogota, Columbia, the centerpiece of a marketing campaign to bring new Latin American fans to stock car racing. He was going to be the international face of the new NASCAR, which back in those heady days had visions of one day racing outside of North America.
Six years later, Montoya has yet to win on an oval track in 219 starts. He's qualified for the Chase only once, in 2009 (he finished that season eighth in the standings), and his career average finish has been a less-than-stellar 19.9. Considering that he drives the Target-sponsored Chevy for owner Chip Ganassi -- one of the most high profile rides in the sport -- Montoya's six-year performance has been a major disappointment.
He has, though, occasionally flashed the potential to be a front-of-the-pack driver. He's nearly won at Indy twice (both times, however, he was undone late by self-inflicted mistakes) and a month ago at Dover he held the lead in the closing laps but was passed by Tony Stewart and finished second.
Yet even after his Dover run, Montoya wasn't overly pleased with his car. "We struggled with loose all day and the longer we run, the worse it got," he said. "I don't know, it was a bit of a hit and miss."
This has been the overriding problem of Montoya's NASCAR career: He simply hasn't felt comfortable in his stock car. And in a series where three-tenths of second on every lap can mean the difference between third place and 30th, a driver that is the slightest bit hesitant behind the wheel because he senses he's on the verge of losing control will always struggle. Through 15 races in 2013, Montoya is winless and 22nd in the standings.
Now the Cup circuit heads to Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, a twisting, 12-turn road course where Montoya won his first Cup race in 2007. A specialist when it comes to turning both left and right, Montoya's only other victory in NASCAR's highest series was in 2010 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, the second road course on the schedule.
Is Montoya driving for his job? Ganassi has the option to pick up his contract for another year at season's end, and the owner has been quiet about Montoya's future. But this is certain: For Montoya to make a compelling case for that option to be exercised, he needs to qualify for the Chase this season.
Which is why Sunday's event is positively critical for Montoya and the No. 42 team. He could still advance to the playoffs as a wildcard, but he'll have to be in the top-20 in points after the 26th race of the season and he'll likely need two victories. His best shot at reaching Victory Lane will be at Sonoma.
In six career starts in wine country, Montoya has four top-10 runs and his average finish is 13.2, which statistically makes Sonoma his best track on the schedule. He should contend for a few more checkered flags this season -- based on past performance, he'll likely be fast at the Glen, Indy and Richmond -- but time may be running out for the 37-year-old Colombian.
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:
1. Tony Stewart
Of all the top championship contenders in the Cup series, Stewart is widely regarded as the best road-course racer. He has seven career wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. What's more, he's finished second in two of his last four starts at Sonoma.
Stewart is also currently one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR. He's reeled off three straight top-five finishes -- including taking the checkers at Dover -- and over that stretch, he's risen from 16th to 10th in the standings. He has long history of being a streaky driver, but he's my pick to win on Sunday.
2. Kasey Kahne
Ever since he finished second at Kansas Speedway on April 21 to climb to second in the standings, Kahne has been in a freefall. Over the last seven races, his average finish has been 25.6 and he's now 12th in points and very much in a fight to qualify for the Chase.
Kahne has been an all-or-nothing driver at Sonoma for most of his career. In nine starts at the California track, he has one victory and a fourth place finish, but he's also wound up 20th or worse six times. On Sunday, he'll be happy with a top-10 simply to stop his slide in the standings.
3. Kurt Busch
Busch has been one of the most intriguing stories in NASCAR in 2013. Driving for a single car team -- though, it should be noted, Furniture Row Racing does share resources and information with Richard Childress Racing -- Busch has three top-five finishes in 15 starts and he could easily be sitting on at least one win right now if he'd had any sort of racing luck this season. (By comparison, Regan Smith, who drove for Furniture Row the previous four seasons, had three top-five finishes in 120 starts.)
Currently 20th in the standings, Busch likely will need two wins to qualify for the Chase as a wild card. He should contend this weekend. In 2011, he dominated at Sonoma, leading a race-high 76-laps on his way to the checkered flag, and last year he came in third here. Expect at least a top-five out of Busch on Sunday.
4. Marcos Ambrose
Driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Ambrose has accomplished little of note in 2013. He had an eighth place finish at Martinsville in April, but that was his only top-10 of the season and he's currently 23rd in the standings.
But Ambrose, who grew up competing on road courses in Australia, is always a threat at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. In the Nationwide Series, he won three straight races at the Glen between 2008 and '10. iIn the Cup series, he has a 5.5 average finish at Sonoma in his last four starts.
Look for Ambrose to run with the leaders on Sunday. Yet, it says here that the man from Tasmania won't have the speed to catch Stewart and the surging No. 14 team.