In only his 17th career Sprint Cup start, Juan Pablo Montoya came and conquered the raceway at Sears Point.
His accomplishment surprised no one.
This was a former Formula One driver who won at Monaco, for goodness sakes. Wheeling a stock car against a bunch of racers who were traditionally more comfortable with ovals would be child’s play, right?
Well, not so much.
Montoya, 36, is in his sixth full season on the Cup tour. He has won only two races — Sonoma in 2007 and Watkins Glen three years later. He has qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup once, in 2009, and hasn’t broken into the top 15 in the point standings since.
No doubt, Montoya has the talent. But it has been five years — and five different crew chiefs — since that first win on the 1.99-mile road course. Montoya has led only two laps since at Sonoma — last year. Then he was dumped by Brad Keselowski and finished 22nd.
“Last year, I was running third when I got spun out,” Montoya said. “But we tested, and I feel we’re the best we’ve been. We went to VIR (Virginia International Raceway), and the first time, I was like, ‘We are making some gains.’
"The biggest struggle always for me here is qualifying. The way you’ve got to drive the car, I don’t know if it’s me or the way we set up the car. I couldn’t save myself to qualify here. We’re still going to be OK.”
Montoya’s qualifying effort again wasn’t stellar — he rolls off 12th on Sunday — but it’s his best showing to date. Before time trials Friday, Montoya’s best starting position was 14th in 2010.
Montoya’s latest crew chief, Chris Heroy, who moved to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing from Hendrick Motorsports at the end of last year, is optimistic. The engineer, who goes by the nickname “Shine,” expects Montoya to be competitive on Sunday “like any road course he would go to.”
“The car has been strong,” Heroy added. “He had his best qualifying effort here yet, and he was top five in both practices today, so he definitely has a shot.”
Montoya’s average finish at Sonoma is ninth. He has completed 100 percent of all laps raced. And Montoya has shown speed this weekend by posting the fourth-fastest lap (93.287 mph) in second practice and was third on the speed sheet (93.075 mph) in Happy Hour.
Montoya and Heroy have endured their share of growing pains in the first 15 races on 2012, but the crew chief is encouraged by the progress the team has made. Montoya led four laps last week at Michigan before posting his second top 10 finish of the year.
“We’re getting our program turned around,” Heroy said. “That was our first top 10 since Bristol and our first top 10 on an intermediate in a long time. We’re headed in the right direction. It’s starting to come together. Juan’s great.”
Montoya is 19th in the point standings — one position behind teammate Jamie McMurray. Neither of the EGR drivers has set the world on fire. McMurray has led 16 laps this season. Montoya has run at the point 14 laps. Given how even the teammates’ performances have been this season, it’s clear the equipment is equal but there’s also room for improvement.
As the Sprint Cup tour starts making return trips to tracks in the second half of the season, how the team evolves will tell the tale.
“I think we’ve done a lot of progress,” Montoya said. “If you really go to the team right now and see how different everything is working, it’s pretty amazing. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place. Just because you put somebody in the right place doesn’t mean that overnight you are going to run better.
“You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has to adapt, and it’s a process. I really feel we made a lot of gains on the car; we made a lot of gains on how the whole engine department is working. We’re definitely making progress, I think.”
A new sensation?
NASCAR released a technical bulletin on Wednesday informing teams of rule changes that will come into effect next week at Kentucky Speedway.
In an effort to improve the aerodynamic package on intermediate tracks, the ground clearance for all side skirts will be a half-inch longer, with the right-side skirt measuring from 4.5 to 5 inches off the ground. Left-side skirts must now have a minimum clearance of 5 inches and a maximum clearance of 5.5 inches.
NASCAR is also hoping for uniformity among teams with the rear sway bar setups by insisting that both the right and left side arm connecting links remain perpendicular to the ground when the car is at ride height. Sway bars control the handling of a car and assist its ability to roll through corners. The sanctioning body was concerned that some teams were venturing into gray areas with sway bars that could offer an unfair advantage for some teams.
“There are, obviously, some people that have been running with the bars that won the race last week and their cars have been fast,” Kevin Harvick said. “Everybody has caught on to what they were doing with the bars and the trailing arms and the bushing, and everybody was getting ready to venture down that road and spend a lot of time.
"There is some significant speed in that particular package. To me, that was the biggest part of the rule change.
“Obviously, the side-skirts thing is really just a balance shift in where the downforce is. There is a little bit less. I mean, you are talking 80 to 90 pounds of downforce. To me, that was the biggest change.”
• 35: Races since a driver posted consecutive poles, as Marcos Ambrose did the past two weeks. Last June, Kurt Busch took the pole at Kansas, Pocono and Michigan.
• 15: Starts in the top 10 for Jeff Gordon at Sonoma, where he’ll roll off second on Sunday.
• 91.559 (mph): Best 10 consecutive lap average in Happy Hour set by Denny Hamlin.
Tony Stewart on what defines blocking: “When somebody runs a different line than what they would run by themselves to keep somebody from passing, that is blocking and that is easy for everybody to see. Everybody stays on the outside until they get to the corner, then they come down to the inside. So, if a guy halfway down the straightaway changes lanes, he is not doing it because it’s a faster line to get him in the corner. He is doing it because he’s blocking.”