It had to be the most disappointing moment of Juan Pablo Montoya’s racing career.
Having won the Indy 500 and coming from open-wheel racing, Montoya no doubt had Sunday’s Allstate 400 at the Brickyard circled on his calendar for months.
He finished second there as a NASCAR rookie in 2007 and presumed that this would be his best opportunity yet to win his second Sprint Cup race.
If he won, it would serve as a bit of a coming-out party for Montoya, who has flirted with stock-car greatness but has yet to achieve the success and stardom so anticipated when he made the much-ballyhooed move from Formula One to NASCAR.
And along the way, he would make a bit of history, becoming the first driver to win the Indy 500 and the NASCAR race at the Brickyard.
Montoya had all of that covered for about 125 laps Sunday. Then in a split second, it all came unraveled as he either made a monumental mistake or fell victim to the most unjust penalty in recent NASCAR history, depending on your point of view.
Montoya’s moment in the sun, and his chance at history, went out the window when he was nabbed for speeding with 35 laps remaining in the race. The gaffe was heartbreaking for Montoya and turned an intriguing story into a disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion to one of NASCAR’s biggest races (honestly, how many fans wanted to see Jimmie Johnson win at Indy again?).
But it should not overshadow a magnificent performance by one of the sport’s up-and-coming stars.
Montoya sent a message Sunday that he is indeed on the verge of becoming a force to be reckoned with.
He was already showing remarkable consistency, racing his way into the top 12 in points and becoming a serious contender to make the Chase. (And despite Sunday’s disappointing 11th-place finish, he is still 10th.)
But Sunday’s dominating run on one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks — and grandest stages — showed that Montoya is not only for real but could be a serious contender when the Chase begins.
Prior to Indy, he had nine top-10 finishes — only five drivers have more on the season — including seven in his last 10 races. He had already become relevant and legitimate; Sunday’s run made him significant. If Montoya can dominate a big race like the one at the Brickyard, leading more than twice as many laps as he has in his three-year NASCAR career, then he is now a threat to win almost anywhere. He now must be considered a threat this week at Pocono (eighth in June), the following week at Watkins Glen (fourth last year), and the week after that at Michigan (sixth in June.)
If Montoya doesn’t win one of those races, he will almost certainly win some soon, possibly in the 10-race Chase.
While perennial contenders continue to fade (Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton), struggle with inconsistency (Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth) and simply boggle the mind with their sudden lack of oomph (Carl Edwards), Montoya is on the rise and threatening to join NASCAR’s elite.
What we saw from him Sunday is what has been expected all along, it’s just taken him longer than anticipated to make it happen.
Part of that is due to the incredibly difficult transition from open-wheel cars to full-bodied stock cars, an adjustment made even more difficult by NASCAR’s new car, which even its most seasoned drivers have struggled to grasp.
But part of it is also due to the struggles of his Chip Ganassi-owned team.
Ganassi’s teams have struggled to catch NASCAR’s top teams, which makes you wonder where Montoya would be today if he was with one of the sport’s elite organizations.
Those struggles got much more difficult late last year when Ganassi merged his stock-car operation with Dale Earnhardt Inc., another bumbling franchise.
The odds got longer when the merger and sponsorship problems forced the new Earnhardt Ganassi organization to cut back from three teams to two, putting it at an extreme disadvantage to the four- and five-car juggernauts.
But a funny thing happened along the way.
As teammate Martin Truex Jr. continues to struggle, giving up on the organization for seemingly greener pastures next season, Montoya has flourished in his new surroundings.
With new crew chief Brian Pattie taking over his team this year, Montoya has shown the talent and potential that everyone knew was there, giving the Earnhardt Ganassi organization a much-needed boost.
Thanks to Montoya, Ganassi may put a team in NASCAR’s Chase for the first time, a significant step for the organization.
More important, Montoya has arrived as a legitimate and consistent threat, potentially giving NASCAR another bona-fide superstar — one that just might be on the verge of becoming an annual factor in NASCAR’s championship race.
Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.