Montoya needs self-control to chase title

In NASCAR, turnabout is fair play.

And when it comes to revenge, the turning has a tendency to go on and on and on.

That’s certainly been the case with Juan Pablo Montoya since he entered the Sprint Cup Series in 2006. From Montoya’s debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway to Saturday night’s rumble in which he dumped Ryan Newman at Richmond International Raceway, the former open wheeler thoroughly understands the benefit of having fenders on his car.

To Montoya’s credit, he’s a quick study and has learned by example. Take his initial altercation with Newman at Homestead nearly 4½ years ago. Montoya made contact with Newman’s car, spinning it with 20 laps remaining in the race. Newman retaliated four laps later by ending Montoya’s night in a ball of flames.

Talk about warm welcomes.

But Montoya refused to let the freshman hazing continue. In the 2007 Nationwide Series race at Mexico City, Montoya punted Chip Ganassi teammate Scott Pruett with eight laps remaining to earn his first NASCAR win.

A new bad boy had arrived in NASCAR, and the former Formula One winner and CART champion was out to prove he was nobody’s rookie.

It appeared Newman and Montoya would pick up where they left off at Martinsville Speedway four months after the first altercation. There’s no doubt that Newman’s reputation for not giving an inch on the track precedes him.

After trading paint for a dozen laps on the half-mile pape clip, Newman finally passed Montoya, but the Colombian was so fired up he took his frustration out on Tony Raines just a few laps later.

Once the action returned at Texas Motor Speedway after an off week, Montoya continued to hold his ground, this time against Tony Stewart. With less than 100 laps remaining in the race, Montoya was attempting to pass Stewart on the inside going into Turn 3 when the drivers made contact and the No. 20 spun, collecting Jimmie Johnson in the process.

The competition between Montoya and Stewart hit a crescendo at Homestead in 2009. Entering the season finale, Stewart was fifth in the points standings and sixth-place Montoya trailed him by just four points. Montoya had a strong run off the corner and plowed into the back of Stewart, who revenged the hit a lap later with a full body slam that cut the tire on the No. 42 and sent it into the wall.

Although both teams were warned by NASCAR, when Montoya returned to competition after 28 laps in the garage, he zeroed in on his target and returned the favor on Lap 157. Consequently, the sanctioning body black-flagged Montoya two laps for aggressive driving. When the flag fell, Stewart and Montoya were scored 22nd and 38th and dropped to sixth and eighth, respectively, in the points standings.

Two weeks later, during a Sirius Satellite Radio show, Stewart said to Montoya, “For two guys that don’t have similar backgrounds, we have very similar personalities.”

Stewart, the owner, can’t be pleased with Montoya roughing up Newman on Saturday night. After the race, Stewart-Haas Racing general manager Bobby Hutchens, along with Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson, voluntarily visited the NASCAR hauler to express their concerns. Montoya had been warned by NASCAR over his radio during the race, with officials telling his team to relay the message, "Stay clean the rest of the night or we’ll put him on the trailer."

Given Stewart’s history with Montoya, coupled with the status of the No. 39, there is plenty to be concerned about. Although Newman’s car is not fully funded, he has managed to stay in the fight for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup since Phoenix, the second race of the season.

Newman was on target for a top-10 finish at Richmond until Montoya punted him on Lap 238 of 400. Newman finished 20th and slipped from seventh to eighth in the points standings.

"I was intentionally crashed and it ruined our day," Newman said after he left the hauler.

Montoya was battling Newman for eighth place when the No. 39 chopped the right rear quarter panel of the No. 42 Chevrolet and inevitably sent the polesitter into the wall on Lap 108. Montoya finished 29th and dropped three positions in the points standings to 12th place.

The two drivers also had contact two weeks ago at Talladega Superspeedway with 17 laps to go. Montoya exonerated Newman in the postrace interview and deflected the liability to Denny Hamlin.

“Well, I don’t think it was (Newman’s) fault you know,” Montoya said of a crash involving the pair. “I was talking to the guys, and (Hamlin) is always impatient here and always causes a lot of wrecks and he just did it again. It sucks. This year he’s been in a lot of wrecks. I don’t know. I don’t want to blame anybody.”

Hamlin, however, did not hold back Saturday night when asked about Montoya.

“I don’t like it,” Hamlin said. “Every time Montoya has damage, you see who did it, they end up getting wrecked. You usually know it’s coming.

“You have to realize, I like Montoya. I think he’s a helluva driver. But you can’t wreck everyone every time you get into an accident. Accidents happen. Guys make mistakes. Why hold grudges? Makes it tough to get in the Chase, too.”

Making the Chase has been problematic for Montoya, 35. And it’s not because of a lack of talent, equipment or personnel. Montoya’s demons are patience and restraint, and that‘s reflective in his lack of consistent finishes. In five years of competition, Montoya has been running at the finish in every race only two of those seasons; in 2009, when he made the Chase and finished eighth in the standings, and this year.

Finishing races on the lead lap has been difficult for Montoya. In the four full seasons of NASCAR competition, Montoya has been running on the lead lap in 15 of 36 races in 2007, 13 in 2008, 28 in 2009 and 22 in 2010. In nine races this year, Montoya has finished on the lead lap only four times.

Before Saturday night, Montoya had maintained a top-10 position in the points standings all season long. He was as high as fourth in points after Las Vegas. Montoya is still in striking distance of the Chase, 13 points behind 10th-place Stewart.

Certainly, Montoya can capture a wild-card spot by winning races, but he’s more than capable of making the Chase on points.

It’s up to the driver to determine whether he wants to exhibit self-control or keep spinning out of control — and out of the championship picture.