Juan Pablo Montoya’s contribution to the NASCAR highlight reel so far this season was his crash into a jet dryer in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Montoya finally had a bright spot that didn’t involve explosions and raging fuel fires.
He turned a lap of 176.043 mph Saturday to win the pole at Pocono Raceway. The winless Montoya won his first pole since April 2011 in Richmond, Va. He hasn’t won a race since Aug. 8, 2010 at Watkins Glen.
The pole was a needed lift for Montoya and his No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. He’s 21st in the standings and has yet to drive to a top-five finish. He only has two top 10s and has continued a string of mediocre seasons since qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2009.
Montoya admitted he was "shocked" he beat out Pocono qualifying stars such as Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne to lead the field in Sunday’s 400- mile race.
"We know we’re working in the right direction, we know we’re working hard, we feel the cars are getting a little better," Montoya said, "but to go out there and get a pole … I just went through the hauler and all the engineers, they’re all happy and laughing. I’m used to long faces, a lot of long faces, a lot of stressful faces. We needed something like this as a company. This is big for us."
Hamlin turned a lap of 175.795 and qualified second. It’s his 12th top-10 start in 14 career Pocono races.
Paul Menard, Kahne and Marcos Ambrose round out the top five.
Points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts eighth.
Montoya joined NASCAR in 2007 after a successful career in open wheel that included an Indianapolis 500 victory and a Monaco Grand Prix win. His 2009 season where he finished eighth in the standings turned out to be a one-year blip instead of a breakthrough into regular championship contention.
His team has undergone massive turnover — including new crew chief Chris Heroy — yet it didn’t bring the No. 42 Chevrolet any better results. He hasn’t finished better than 21st in any of his last three races and has finished better than 14th only once in his last 11 races.
"I think we’re quite a ways away from as a company where we want to get to," he said. "We want to be able to come every weekend knowing you can beat a Hendrick, beat a Gibbs. That’s our goal."
Montoya knows he was as unlikely as any driver to win the pole.
"If you told me this morning I was going to be sitting on the pole, I’d say, `pfff,’" he said. "I thought we were going to be OK. I thought we’d be 12-15. And we’re sitting on the pole."
The trick for Montoya becomes trying to duplicate the strong run on Sunday. Montoya has four career top 10s, including one runner-up finish in 2009, in 11 career starts at Pocono.
"I know tomorrow is going to be a reality check," Montoya said. "I’m really open-minded about tomorrow. But let’s enjoy today."
Montoya is the 15th different pole winner in 21 races this season and earned a spot in the 2013 Shootout at Daytona.
The first repave at Pocono since 1995 produced record speeds in qualifying for the June race — 36 cars bettered the previous track record.
Logano set the track record of 179.598 mph and went on to win the race. With 400 miles of racing and several practice sessions on the track, the speeds weren’t as fast on Saturday. Logano prepared for qualifying by watching a replay of his second career Cup victory.
"I was sitting in the motorhome watching the race tape and I’m like, `I know who is going to win this race.’ This is going to be a good one,’" he said. "Those are more fun to watch."