HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – There’s a handmade Colombian flag hanging inside Juan Pablo Montoya’s motorhome that was given to him by a fan several weeks ago.
Three words are embroidered into the stripes: IndyCar Champ 2014.
Eight years after Montoya came into NASCAR amid great hype and high expectations, he’ll quietly close out his career Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with unmet goals and his long relationship with Chip Ganassi at a crossroads.
Montoya is headed back to open wheel. He will drive for Roger Penske next season in IndyCar, a job he jumped at in September after Ganassi informed him a month earlier he wouldn’t be bringing him back in 2014.
His record currently shows two wins in 252 starts _ both victories on road courses _ and he hasn’t been to Victory Lane since 2010. He never won on an oval and his best season was 2009, when he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and finished eighth in the final standings.
Many will call him his NASCAR stint a bust and ultimately remember Montoya for the explosive fireball created when he crashed into a jet dryer during the 2012 Daytona 500.
But three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart said there’s no denying the Montoya’s talent. He won the Indianapolis 500, a CART championship and seven Formula One races. Stewart said he recognized Montoya’s skill immediately in 2007 when Montoya participated in the Prelude to the Dream late-model race at Stewart’s Eldora Speedway.
“He can drive,” Stewart said. “The thing that showed me was when we went to Prelude and I had him sit on the door of the car and I showed him how to drive the car down through the pit area and turned around and switched, and he drove it back. I had to show him how to get it rolling and then he took off _ after three laps, he had never been on dirt before and never been to Eldora before, which is not an easy place to go your first time.
“So who knows what the missing piece of the puzzle for him over there? Something wasn’t in the equation.”
Montoya was careful when discussing Ganassi. He chose his words carefully and declined to comment when asked if he thinks he’d have been more competitive with another NASCAR team.
“I decided to come here and do it with Chip, and we knew from Day 1 _ he told me it was going to be an uphill battle and it was,” Montoya said. “We worked as hard as we could. If you look at all the years of Ganassi, the only guy who made the Chase was me. From that point of view, I’m happy.
“I think the hardest thing over the years was the amount of changes. There was just no consistency.”
He’s correct on the consistency issue, as Ganassi made five different crew chief changes on the No. 42 team since Montoya’s rookie 2007 season. The organization, which is consistently among the best in IndyCar, has been on a cycle of rebuilds in NASCAR to try to reach a similar level of performance.
Ironically, in the season in which Ganassi decided to let Montoya go and replace him next year with 21-year-old Kyle Larson, Montoya is finally showing consistency on the track. Although he’s 21st in the standings, he has had chances to win on ovals, including Richmond and Dover.
“I put a lot of time into NASCAR and I feel I’ve done as a driver a good job,” he said. “Of course I wanted better results. But there were a lot of weeks we had really good cars, and when we did, we competed well. The only thing I didn’t like was that the ups and downs were too big. It seems like the downs were bigger than the ups, and that was hard.
“But the way I look at it, every time I’ve been in a competitive car, I can perform.”
Montoya showed that in January at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, where he drove a rousing final stint to put Ganassi back on top of the podium while collecting his third victorious watch.
But those days are likely over as Montoya said he won’t compete in the Rolex race for Ganassi next year. The relationship seems strained as their days working together wind down, and the change began to happen, Montoya believes, after he signed with Ganassi rival Penske Racing.
“I think it’s been a little more awkward. Surprisingly awkward since I told him about Penske,” Montoya said. “He’s been nice, but there’s a lot more tension. I did the Penske move for myself, no one else. As soon as I was out of the car, I said I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to win races and Penske provides that for me. It’s that simple.
“I didn’t choose to leave him to go drive for another team. He chose to let me go and then I found another job.”
Part of the issue may stem from Montoya’s suddenly intense exercise regime, which has helped him shed more than 20 pounds in an effort to be at the 175-pound mark at IndyCar weigh-ins early next year.
But much like Montoya, Ganassi takes the high road publicly.
“I think my relationship with Juan has never been one that sort of ebbs and flows with the performance of the race team,” said Ganassi, who also fielded cars for Montoya in the 1999 CART championship and 2000 Indianapolis 500 win. “Our friendship has gone on since 1999. I think it’s pretty hard to perforate that friendship with race results or movement among teams and everything. I think that would be somewhat childish to say that our friendship rests on that.
“Obviously, it’s going to set up the fact that he’ll be driving for Roger next year. That’s great that he’s got a great ride. It’s certainly going to open up the field for some banter back and forth at particular times,” he continued. “I’m sure that there will be some situations maybe that neither of us have come across before in our friendship.
“While it may test our friendship, I don’t think it will perforate it.”
Montoya is only looking forward. He excitedly showed a picture of next year’s Penske car, as well as his helmet design. He said wife Connie is excited for the change, and his three children will enjoy IndyCar’s 18-race schedule after seven full seasons of their father being gone 38 weekends.
“NASCAR has been very good to my family. But my kid, he won his first race last weekend, and I missed it,” Montoya said. “I told Sebastian I wasn’t going to drive the Target car anymore and he asked why? I told him it was time for a change and he said `Go drive IndyCars.’ “
“I’m excited. I haven’t been in a car since 2000, but I think it’s going to be like riding a bike and I think change is going to be good. Working with other people is going to be good. I think this is going to be good for everybody.”
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