Montoya stepping up on ovals

Talk about the odd couple.

Before Chip Ganassi aligned Juan Pablo Montoya with Chris Heroy at the end of 2011, the NASCAR garage had not witnessed a driver/crew chief combination as peculiar since Harry Hogge called the shots for Cole Trickle — and that was on the big screen.

Certainly, there were times when communication between Montoya and his first Sprint Cup crew chief Donnie Wingo appeared lost in translation, but that was seven years and a half dozen chiefs ago.

Now, the seven-time Formula One winner and former Champ Car champion might have met his match with the former engineer they call “Sunshine” or just “Shine” for short. While Montoya is accustomed to being pampered and placated at some of the trendiest spots in the world, Heroy, who prefers shopping at Goodwill to Gucci, is too grounded to play that game.

But it hasn’t been an easy transition for Heroy, who was part of a complete reorganization of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2012. After Montoya scored just two top-five finishes and was ranked 21st in the 2011 standings, Ganassi cleaned house from upper management to the leadership of the No. 42 Target squad. Technical director John Probst was acquired from Red Bull. Team manager Max Jones had been a long-time lieutenant in the Roush Fenway organization.

Heroy had been a team engineer on the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team and had just started dabbling in the crew chief’s role in the Nationwide Series before moving to EGR.

In their first season together, Montoya posted just two top 10s and led a total of 22 laps. Despite winning the pole for the race at Watkins Glen in 2011, Montoya finished outside of the top 30 on both road courses last year.

“It’s been a struggle,” Heroy said. “It took a process and some time. I feel good about where it’s headed. If we didn’t learn the lessons we learned, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I was learning how to crew chief. I was learning how to communicate with Juan. I was learning how to build a team that would work and communicate together. It was good. I enjoyed every minute of it. But there were times when your patience and resolve get tested.

“Juan is Juan. You figure out your driver eventually. They say one word (is) enough and you figure it out. There’s no veil with Juan. You get everything right away. But learning to pull a team together and maximize the resources that the organization has has been the biggest challenge. It’s also been the biggest improvement and why we’ve been able to challenge for wins and run in the top five.”

In addition to just having time to gel with each other, Heroy and Montoya have been aided as EGR has developed into “a true two-car team,” which has benefited both squads. Another key to the team’s success has been early testing with the new Generation-6 car. Midway through last season, Heroy cut loose on the old car and went all in the on the Gen-6. At the tracks — Richmond, Darlington and Dover —  where Montoya has tested the model, the team finished fourth, eighth and second, respectively.

Heroy has experienced success in racing. He spent seven seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. His crew chief skills were honed working in the Nationwide Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who offered “Shine” the opportunity two years ago at JR Motorsports. Last year, Junior predicted that Heroy “would become one of the best crew chiefs in the business one day.”

“He’s just a different guy,” Earnhardt said. “He’s just a little more laid back, a little less riled up by things. He’s focused on his job, works really hard. He has a great sense of humor and knows how to enjoy himself.

“He has a lot of talent and he’s a really, really good guy. I believed in him … Hopefully, he can get to Victory Lane and prove his worth. I’m sure he will.”

Earnhardt’s prognostication almost came true on Sunday. A two-tire decision on the final pit stop provided Montoya the lead with 19 laps remaining in the race at Dover. Unfortunately for the No. 42 team, Tony Stewart passed Montoya two laps before the finish. Still, the second-place finish was Montoya’s best effort since his win at Watkins Glen in 2010.

“When we started, it was hard because he had a certain mentality the way the car had to be set up and I was like, ‘You don’t get it, if you set it up like that and I can’t drive it, it doesn’t matter how good of a base set up it is,’” said Montoya, who is 22nd in points and trails 20th-place Ryan Newman by 16 markers. “You’ve got to give me something that I can drive and be comfortable and hustle the car.

“It took a little bit of time, but now I think we are clicking really well and you know, we have been getting good results every week, that is awesome.”

Heroy agrees that finding the initial feel for Montoya took time even though he had worked with open-wheel drivers before in the Toyota Atlantic Series prior to coming to NASCAR. But now that they’re on the same page, he’s confident that a breakthrough win is just around the corner.

“He has a feel that he needs which is different than anything I’ve worked with in the past so it took a while to find,” Heroy said. “When he has that feel, he’s as good as anybody. He can beat the Jimmie Johnsons and the Matt Kenseths and those types of people. It’s a little different, but if it works it works. I’m not one to throw bricks at glass houses.

“I think we make the Chase. We’ve had some bad luck. But we’re a threat to win road courses, a threat to win ovals. I think that’s easily attainable for us.”

Here are five other topics to ponder entering Pocono:

1. Let’s get real

Yes, Tony Stewart ended his winless slump on Sunday by earning his first victory since Daytona last July. However, while the accomplishment will certainly boost morale, even the driver/owner acknowledged that “this is not an organization that’s turned around in two weeks. We still have a lot of work to do to get it turned around. But the last two weeks, we’ve made progress, and last week was a big step and this week is another step.”

Stewart-Haas Racing tested at Dover. Although weather conditions were completely different over the weekend, it was surprising that the teams were as far off as they were. Stewart credited the diligence of his former crew chief and current SHR Director of Competition Greg Zipadelli as well as his crew for working overtime to right the ship following a miserable happy-hour practice. Still, Smoke is encouraged that the organization is “making progress and we are making forward progress at this point” and after testing at Pocono as well, the team should have a solid baseline entering this weekend’s event.

2. NASCAR’s Believe it or Not

Does anyone really believe that coming off of a suspension and still being on probation that members of the No. 2 Penske Racing team would do anything untoward to their car to bring it under suspicion in the NASCAR garage? When it was announced that the No. 2 Ford was discovered to be too low in post-race inspection, it just seemed unreal. Keselowski certainly suffered from crew chief Paul Wolfe’s absence and the 25 points the defending championship team was docked after the sanctioning body discovered illegal suspension parts on the car at Texas.

If the team is serious about making a championship run — and we know they are — there’s no way they would take the risk.

3. Calmer heads prevailed

Yes, Denny Hamlin attempted to take the No. 11 Toyota back out on the track despite breaking a control arm after he blew a tire and slammed into the wall at Dover. Hamlin’s determination is certainly admirable, but it was prudent of crew chief Darian Grubb and spotter Chris “Crazy” Osborne to remind Hamlin that his health is more important than finishing the race. Hamlin, who was sidelined five weeks while recovering from a fractured vertebra suffered in a wreck at Fontana, is valiantly fighting back from a 74-point deficit to the top 20 in the standings.

On Sunday, he dropped to 26th in points after finishing 34th in Race 13 — the halfway point before the Chase for the Sprint Cup. To continue his Chase streak — he and Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers to qualify for the play-off system in all the years in which they were eligible — Hamlin has to win races and climb into the top 20 in the next 13 events. His silver lining? He’s won at six of the tracks, including Pocono and Michigan, which will be featured twice.

4. What’s going on?

Remember when Roush Fenway Racing was dominant at Dover? From 1997 to 2011, co-owner Jack Roush’s teams won nine times at Dover. In 2008, Roush Fenway Fords swept the top three spots in the fall Cup race. Sunday’s race marked the first time RFR failed to post a top-10 finish at the Monster Mile since the fall race in 2001. With NASCAR penalizing Jimmie Johnson on Sunday for jumping the restart, the driver formerly known as "concrete Carl" (Edwards), who is currently second in the standings, (-30) missed the perfect opportunity to make up ground on the No. 48 team when he finished 14th, three spots ahead of Johnson.

About the only positive to take away from Sunday was that the Roush cars were consistent — they finished 13th (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.), 14th (Edwards) and 15th (Greg Biffle) — and just ahead of another Ford, piloted by Casey Mears.

5. New Kids on the Block

It was a big weekend for youngsters at Dover. Yes, Kyle Busch spanked the Truck field, but the top 10 was well represented by the next generation of NASCAR stars with Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Joey Coulter, Jeb Burton and polesitter Darrell “Bubba” Wallace. There was a time when it appeared that rising talent wouldn’t have the opportunity to star unless there was money brought to the table. Certainly, there are more "buy rides" than ever in racing but it’s good to see owners opening their pocketbooks and investing in the future of the sport.