Juan Pablo Montoya came to NASCAR three seasons ago after starring for five years in Formula One, the world's premier auto racing circuit. His background made the Colombia native one of the most hyped -- and most glamorous -- Cup rookies in recent memory. But two years of mediocre performance made him little more than an afterthought heading into 2009.
Sure he was a road-course master, but his prowess for turning right as well as left didn't exactly make him a threat to qualify for the Chase or challenge for a championship. So people, understandably, quit caring. His aggressive driving style had earned some jeers from fans during his rookie campaign in '07, but by the end of last year, most folks couldn't muster the energy for even a couple of lusty boos. The man was a non-factor, an also-ran, a bust.
Well, perhaps it's time to start paying attention to Montoya once again. With the exception of a two-race stretch in Atlanta and Las Vegas, the Rumblin' Colombian has started the year on a tear. His seventh-place finish at Texas two weeks ago moved him to 13th in the Cup standings, ranking him ahead of a slew of Chase veterans, including Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr.
What's different? Well, several things: for one, Montoya is behind the wheel of a Chevy instead of a Dodge. More importantly though, he's developed a great relationship with crew chief Brian Pattie. Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press has documented the pair's exploits here.
What I find interesting in this story is that when he took over as Montoya's crew chief last May, Pattie had "zero" experience with the new car. Of course, save for a couple of races in '07, Montoya was in the same boat. Montoya had struggled mightily as a rookie, not only to learn how to drive machines much heavier and more unbalanced than the ones he had driven in F1, but also to master oval racing. When I sat down with him in August of that year, he told me, "I have no experience on oval tracks whatsoever."
Montoya's progress at the fine art of turning left should now be obvious for all to see. He has mastered ovals both large (he was 14th at Daytona) and small (he was ninth at Bristol and 12th at Martinsville). And as he showed at Texas, he's even good on the in-betweens. He may not yet be a threat to win a Cup, but a trip to NASCAR's postseason is no longer out of the question.
7: Cup record for consecutive victories at one track, shared by Richard Petty (Richmond, 1970-73) and Darrell Waltrip (Bristol, 1981-84)
3: Consecutive Cup victories for Jimmie Johnson at Phoenix
5.5: Johnson's average finish at Phoenix, in 11 races
Maybe a Wii boxing competition isn't as much fun to watch as a Kyle Busch meltdown, but it does have an awesomeness all it's own. And why am I not surprised that Elliott Sadler emerges victorious? He must be a ton of fun on Christmas morning.