What we learned at Watkins Glen
113 races. 732 laps led. Two agonizing Indianapolis defeats, nine second- and third-place finishes, and 16 DNFs for crashes. With those kinds of numbers, it's no wonder frustration over
But, one day after a Ganassi meeting to boost morale, relief finally came. Montoya was outright dominant in Sunday's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips At the Glen, leading 74 of 90 laps to cruise to his first victory in over three years. Was that enough to mend fences with crew chief
Up to this point in 2010, NASCAR's fourth-year Colombian F-1 convert could have retitled his season "The year of what could have been." Labeled a main contender to stop
"By race five, we had three DNFs," Montoya recounted after his victory. "You have to be realistic about what's happening. You have to start being more aggressive. A lot of mistakes came, from my part and the team."
Those had long ago knocked him out of Chase contention, leaving the rest of the season all about fighting for wins. But, despite a long line of good cars, getting over that hump proved elusive -- including the infamous four-tire call by crew chief
"When you go home empty-handed, it's frustrating," said the driver, who claimed last week he was over Indy in 15 minutes but later admitted close calls can bug him. "Sometimes, I even talk myself out of a good result."
Those flashes of frustration went public the last two weeks, anger over Pattie's mistakes helping spur this week's Ganassi chat. Have the two finally patched up their differences going forward?
"Trophies mean a lot," said Pattie, who added the relationship was never seriously strained. "When you're passionate about winning races, the closer we got, the worse it got for frustration level. We've led a lot of laps, led a lot of races this year."
"I want to be, you know, the Hendricks, those guys. I want to be consistent week in, week out, no matter if we are at a half-mile racetrack, mile-and-a-half, road course or a speedway." So does Montoya, and Sunday's victory was a huge step in that direction. And, with the Chase out of the picture, the No. 42 has the speed to become a major wild card this fall, scooping up two or three more right under the noses of the sport's main title contenders.
"I think we can learn a lot this season on how to execute a little better," Montoya said. I agree ... and step one is to make sure this marriage never lets emotions get the better of them again.
At one point Sunday, it looked like Montoya would fall victim to a familiar face on road courses: Ambrose. Pacing himself after starting 11th, the Australian picked off his foes one-by-one, then mowed down Montoya at a pace of seven-tenths of a second to set up a thrilling battle for the lead mid-race. Neither driver gave an inch, with Ambrose darting around his rival's back bumper, picking his spot for the better part of ten minutes before finally taking the lead on Lap 41. Finally, it looked like the demons of Infineon - where he was in control until stalling the car under caution with seven laps left -- would be put to rest.
"It was a lot of fun in the middle part of the race," he said. "You could tell we weren't running for a championship, because I just wore everything out trying to pass him."
But that toll Ambrose took on his equipment would ultimately cost him as once again, with victory on the doorstep he maintained a troubling inability to close the deal. Montoya absolutely pummeled him on restarts, taking the lead back on Lap 46 after a caution and consistently getting the jump the rest of the way. Every yellow flag would follow a familiar pattern: on the first green-flag lap afterwards, the No. 42 would get a jump so big, it looked like Ambrose was standing still, dropping to third or worse while Montoya in front would build a lead of a second or more in the course of a single lap.
"We lost the handle on it after that last stop," Ambrose claimed afterwards, eventually forced to settle for third after
Regardless of the real reason, this pending free agent missed out on a key moment to seal his NASCAR future for 2011. A win would have made it easy for Ford to pony up some cash for one of their favorites even without primary sponsorship. Now, even though the Blue Oval crowd wants him back, their investment becomes a slightly harder sell. Ambrose may have three top-3 finishes in three career Watkins Glen starts, but has an empty trophy case to show for it -- making this Sunday the race we'll look back on if he's been running races in his home country next season.
Speaking of missed opportunities, Bowyer has this race and Infineon to thank for putting his Chase chances in serious jeopardy. At both road courses, a broken rear part helped turn a top finish into total disaster, including Sunday's broken truck arm mount that negated a drive from 34th to well inside the top 15. Winding up one lap down in 32nd after spending time inside the garage, Bowyer fell outside the top 12 in points, dropping ten markers behind
Not so for Martin and others who have new life breathed into their sagging playoff hopes. Despite a solid track record of 16 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, the 51-year-old struggled a second straight year at the Glen, with a 19th-place finish barely enough to bypass Bowyer. Behind him,
"There's a lot of pressure on us," said Newman. "But it's still a great race for that position. Everybody is racing hard."
With no clear-cut favorite over the final four races, it's anyone's guess who could snag that final spot. But notice one name that's dropped out of the discussion completely:
With the playoffs looming, the series' elite are supposed to be using this stretch as a tune-up for when it really counts. But if the motto, "Don't do anything in practice you wouldn't do in a game" rings true, the supposed 2010 title favorites have spent the last three weeks virtually tripping over themselves, leaving us scratching our heads as to who, exactly, is capable of winning it all.
Consider the top seven in Sprint Cup points --
"A dive bomb. It's so stupid," he said of the wreck. "It's just lack of respect out there. But we are racing for eighth to 10th place. We had a 10th-place car all day." Busch was able to limp home eighth, but he and Hamlin may be in the biggest trouble: neither one has run better than fifth since Michigan nearly two months ago. We've seen drivers struggle only to bounce back during the playoffs before ... but that's a really long slump to roll the dice with come September.
For the last two decades, Infineon and Watkins Glen car owners have turned toward road course specialists from other series to make a one-off start in NASCAR. The theory is their experience can give their car a much-needed boost, especially over an oval track veteran who is simply struggling to give them top-20s. But none of these "ringers" has scored a Cup victory in the modern era, and Sunday was one of their worst performances. Only Grand Am's
"I had a great time in this car," exclaimed Said, who was filling in for
But will Said and others ever get a chance to fly again? Sunday's failing grade may mark the end of an era, the Top-35 rule combined with reluctance for owners to spend extra cash keeping these road course ringers all but sidelined for 2011 and beyond.