When the greenflag drops at Daytona International Speedway this Sunday, it will not onlysignal the start of the Daytona 500 but also wave in a series of landmarkdebuts in NASCAR this season. Toyota will become the first foreign manufactureron American racing's premier circuit (page 64); a new design of stock car,dubbed the Car of Tomorrow, will take to the track in March (gatefold, page69); a new Chase for the Cup format will put two additional drivers in thetitle hunt in September (box, page 62); and NASCAR itself will switch lanes,moving from NBC/TNT to ESPN and ABC for the final 17 races of the year.
As for the mostsignificant arrival in 2007, NASCAR fans got a preview last fall beginning withan ARCA series race on Oct. 6 at Talladega Superspeedway. When the 5'8",160-pound driver Juan Pablo Montoya strolled into the garage and up to hisnumber 4 Dodge Charger, a dozen cameras flashed as he pulled on his gloves. Sixvideo cameras whirred as he planted a kiss on the lips of his wife, Connie.More than 50 sets of eyes watched as he lifted himself into the cockpit. It wasonly a race in the NASCAR equivalent of Double A ball, but it was one of themost anticipated stock car runs in recent memory--and no one was more anxiousthan 62-year-old Pablo Montoya, who stood just a few feet away from hisson.
"Juan Pablohas come so far in his career," said Pablo. "I used to race go-karts ata road course in Bogotà [Colombia, his native country], and after the racesfive-year-old Juan Pablo would be waiting for me. I'd pick him up, put him inmy lap and then go back out on the track. I'd let him steer while I controlledthe pedals. I challenged him and went very fast, probably around 100 mph. Wespun out a lot, but that was O.K. because he was learning."
On this day JuanPablo, 31, started second in the Food World 250 and quickly moved to his firstlead in a stock car. For eight laps, in front of 5,000 fans (including asmattering of Colombians), he paced the field on the 2.66-mile track. By Lap 36Montoya had been shuffled back to 10th, and as he rumbled into Turn 3, the cardriven by Bryan Silas suddenly spun out of control and slammed hard into theright side of Montoya's, sending the number 4 Dodge into a slide at 180mph.
This was themoment that Montoya's car owner, Chip Ganassi, had been waiting for. Ganassiwanted to see if Montoya could save his car from crashing after being bumped--asituation Montoya had rarely experienced while driving on the Formula Onecircuit the last 5 1/2 years. In a heartbeat Ganassi got his answer. With a fewyanks on the steering wheel, Montoya steadied his car and kept it from smashinginto the wall. It was an exhilarating display of reflexes and car control, andthough Montoya had dropped to 36th place, he was still in the hunt for thecheckered flag.
"You havingany fun yet?" Ganassi said jokingly over the radio from the pit.
"Yes, I'mhaving fun," Montoya replied. "Little bit freaky. Some of the guys movearound a lot."
From the back ofthe field Montoya started passing cars, taking the high line and the low line,riding the draft as if he could see the flow of air streaming over his hood.Slicing through traffic, he bump-drafted past his new rivals and nudged a fewmore out of the way. With 14 laps to go, Montoya had battled his way to thirdplace only to have the race called because of darkness. In his first stock carouting he passed about 50 cars, which was more than he passed in his F/1career. "That was the most fun I've ever had in a race car," he said,grinning, after sliding out from behind the wheel. "I think I'm going tolike this NASCAR thing."
As the privatejet taxied on the runway at Napa Airport, in the heart of California winecountry last June, Ganassi sat in a plush cabin seat chatting with a friend.His cellphone rang. It was Montoya, who had driven for Ganassi in the CARTseries from 1998 through 2000, calling to say hello from Montreal, where he waspreparing for the Canadian Grand Prix.
Racing first forBMW Williams and then for McLaren Mercedes on the F/1 circuit, the most popularracing series worldwide, Montoya had in five seasons won seven Grands Prix andearned more than $50 million on and off the track. In a sport dominated for adecade by the German driver Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari team, Montoyawas viewed as an aggressive, risk-taking driver with a rare instinct forpassing on the demanding winding road courses through cities and countryside.His name and mischievous smile were known from Canada to Monaco to Bahrain andChina.
Yet Montoyawasn't happy in F/1. His average finish in the first eight races of 2006 was acareer-worst 8.75--thanks largely to mechanical failures and accidents--and hewas rumored to be on the verge of losing his ride. Montoya had read in aCanadian newspaper that Casey Mears, one of Ganassi's Nextel Cup drivers, wasleaving at the end of the '06 season for Hendrick Motorsports, which meant thatGanassi would have a seat to fill. "I hear you're looking for adriver," Montoya said in his call to Ganassi.
"Yeah, I'mlooking," replied the team owner.
"Why didn'tyou call me?"
"Come on,Juan Pablo," said Ganassi. "You don't want to drive in NASCAR."
Ganassi had toend the call because his plane was about to take off, but he told Montoya,"I'll call you tomorrow." Besides, Ganassi figured that Montoya, aninveterate prankster, was pulling a fast one. No F/1 driver had ever switchedto racing full time in the Nextel Cup series. To most drivers with a backgroundin open-wheel racing--such as Montoya, who won the Indy 500 with Ganassi in2000--F/1 is the gold standard of motor sports.
But when Ganassiand Montoya chatted again the following day, the driver repeated his desire totry stock cars. Ganassi still wasn't convinced--until he called Pablo Montoya,who confirmed that his son wanted to jump to NASCAR. That's when Ganassi gaveMontoya a multiyear contract to drive the number 42 Havoline Dodge.
Wherever Montoyahas raced in the U.S. over the last four months, dozens of yellow-blue-and-redColombian flags have followed. They were waving in the stands on Oct. 15 atIowa Speedway, in the tiny town of Newton, where he finished 24th in his secondARCA race. Two weeks later the banners greeted Montoya at Memphis MotorsportsPark, where he made his Busch Series debut and finished 11th. And theyfluttered on Nov. 19 at Miami-Homestead Speedway for Montoya's first Nextel Cuprace. Starting 29th, he blasted through the field and was running as high as13th before getting bumped into the wall by Ryan Newman and spinning out in afrightening ball of flames. Montoya escaped uninjured through the driver's-sidewindow, but in two hours of green-flag racing he had proved to the Cup veteransthat he belonged among them.
"I raced withhim a lot at Miami, and the guy is an amazing talent," says two-time Cupchampion Tony Stewart. "I think he's going to win multiple races thisseason."
In mid-Januaryanother Colombian flag was rippling in the wind in the virtually empty standsat Daytona International Speedway. It was the last day of winter testing forthe 500 at the 2.5-mile oval, and Montoya was fifth on the speed chart. Did hebelieve he could become the first foreign driver to win the Great American Racethis year? "I'll need some luck, but you never know," Montoya said ashe lounged in his hauler. "I've never run side by side with other cars for500 miles, where it's easy to get caught up in wrecks, but we're prettyfast." Montoya paused and fiddled with the helmet resting in his lap, thensuddenly looked up and said, "But the great thing is, in racing anything ispossible."
For now, Montoyais poised to become the first Latin American driver to compete successfully instock car racing, which has NASCAR's marketing department salivating. LastOctober a dozen NASCAR officials gathered with Ganassi representatives inCharlotte for a "Montoya summit" to discuss strategies for marketingthe driver to the Latin American racing audience. NASCAR currently claims a fanbase of 75 million, with 9% of those fans Latin American. That number shouldrise in 2007 when Spanish-language TV networks Telemundo and Univision step upcoverage of Montoya in the Nextel Cup series. And when NASCAR visits the tracksin cities with large Hispanic populations--Texas Motorspeedway in Dallas,Phoenix International Raceway, Homestead-Miami Speedway--race officials willcrank up the hype machine for Montoya, whose face will appear on billboards inthose areas.
A Ganassi driverhasn't won a Nextel Cup race since Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag inCharlotte in October 2002. But Ganassi envisions Montoya becoming Rookie of theYear, winning at least once in '07 (the best bet: one of the two road-courseevents, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., or at Watkins Glen, N.Y.) andone day becoming the first foreign-born driver to win a Cup title.
Montoya alreadyhas a win this year: the Rolex 24-hour endurance sports car race at Daytona inlate January. Montoya and codrivers Scott Pruett and Salvador Duràn bested afield that included Nextel Cup giants Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon."I've seen Juan Pablo do amazing things in race cars," says Ganassi,"and he has a way of getting people on his team to respond to him. He'llassimilate just fine to this type of racing."
Seated inGanassi's motor home at Daytona, the owner and his driver appeared as close asany owner-driver combination in Nextel Cup. They are ready to make historytogether. "As they say in poker, 'I'm all in,'" said Ganassi.
"So amI," said Montoya. "There's no going back now for either one ofus."
Read more from Lars Anderson on Juan Pablo Montoya'stransition from F/1 to NASCAR.
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