News & Media


Better communication, better luck keys for Montoya

February 10, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

With attention off them for now, driver and crew chief ready to make own path

For the first time since he's been driving for car owner Chip Ganassi in the Sprint Cup Series, all eyes are not on Juan Montoya.

As Montoya prepares to enter the 2011 season, teammate Jamie McMurray is drawing more attention as the defending Daytona 500 champion. For once and at least for a little while, the flamboyant, outspoken Montoya is more or less taking a back seat.

"At the end of the day, we're both here to win races and we're both here to perform well. Everything is in the right place to do that, and we'll see what happens."

--JUAN MONTOYA

He said he's fine with that and focused on what he needs to do to make a return visit to the Chase. Montoya was in the Chase in 2009, when he finished eighth in the final points standings.

Last year, a blown engine in the second race of the year at Auto Club Speedway in California and a wreck caused by teammate McMurray a week later in Las Vegas pretty much ruined Montoya's season almost before it got in second gear. He was 26th in points after Vegas and never climbed higher than 16th.

"There were so many wrecks and stuff that happened outside of our control," Montoya said. "The hole became so big it was nearly impossible to get out of."

But if you delve closer into the numbers, it appears the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is poised for a huge rebound this year.

In five of the first eight races last season, Montoya encountered problem after problem while finishing 26th or worse, including four times when he placed 34th or worse. He never fully recovered, although a later victory on the road course at Watkins Glen led to a string of five consecutive top-10 finishes that showed a flash of his team's possible true potential.

Even though Montoya eventually had to settle for 17th in the final standings, he was the only non-Chase driver who routinely showed up in the top 10 of the most telling Cup season statistics: sixth in percentage of fastest laps run; sixth in number of laps run in the top 15; seventh in number of quality passes; seventh-fastest on restarts; eighth amongst mile leaders; eighth in average running position; 10th in total laps led. In average running position, he placed one spot ahead of title contender Denny Hamlin and four other Chasers -- hinting at his strong chances of a huge turnaround in 2011.

"I think the ingredients are here," said Felix Sabates, the minority partner in the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing operation. "Everything already has been put together. Now we just need a little better luck."

Well, that and they need to learn how to finish races better, according to crew chief Brian Pattie. And to do that, much of the responsibility does fall back on Montoya. Pattie candidly admitted that the communication between the driver and crew chief could be -- and needs to be -- better than it was in 2010 when they often ran up front for much of any given race, only to fall back at the end even when they weren't victims of poor luck.

"If we make an adjustment during a race, instead of trying to guess to get Juan what he likes, it would be easier if Juan knew exactly the adjustment to ask for," Pattie said. "It's just getting smarter inside the car, but he's come a long ways on that already."

Pattie said it has been understandable that Montoya has taken time to adjust to the nuances of figuring out what he likes and what he doesn't -- and how to communicate that, especially during the course of a race. This will be just Montoya's fifth full season in stock cars after building his career -- and reputation as a fearless, aggressive, talented driver -- in open-wheel racing.

"It's not learning, it's being more proactive in practice and knowing what's going on. And saying, 'Hey, I like that change.' Then during a race he can say, 'Remember that change I liked during practice? Let's try that one.' If you notice the top guys, that's what they're doing. They lead you in the direction of adjustments that need to be made," Pattie said.

"And he's getting there. He comes from open wheel where they have engineers looking at computers. We don't have computers to look at, other than timing and scoring. So he's learned a lot in the last five years. ... We need him to be the computer."

Improvement on the No. 42 team is not all on Montoya, of course, Pattie is quick to add.

"It's everything," Pattie said. "On my side, it's making sure the pit calls are right; inside the car, it's making sure Juan's not losing his mind and is focused on what he needs to be focused on; and with the pit crew, they need to step up and make sure the money stop is a 14-second stop and not a 17-second stop. It's all of those.

"It's a team sport. But the more times you put yourself in that position, where you're running up front, the better you'll be -- and that goes for myself to the pit crew all the way down even to Juan's case."

Montoya insisted that his relationship with Pattie, who has been his crew chief since the final 25 races of 2008, has continued to evolve over time and has never been better.

"I think we're in position right now where we understand each other really well," Montoya said. "We've gone through good times and bad times. It's easy to have a great relationship when everything is going well and smooth. It's when you have to go through bad times that your relationship is really going to be tested.

"At the end of the day, we're both here to win races and we're both here to perform well. Everything is in the right place to do that, and we'll see what happens."