Rolex 24 victor plans to rebound after tough 2011 and 2012 Cup campaigns
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- “Welcome back to Victory Lane.”
Those were the first words Juan Pablo Montoya heard over the radio from team owner Chip Ganassi as he drove the winning car past the checkered flag in Sunday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
And they were as much pep talk as they were congratulatory.
Sure, Montoya’s boss was overjoyed at his team’s historic Rolex 24 win, but he was equally as encouraged to see his driver’s change in fortune.
It’s been two long years since the Colombian super talent hoisted any trophy or sprayed champagne. His last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory came two summers ago on the venerable Watkins Glen, N.Y., road course and if you had told Montoya then that he’d be 0-fer ever after, he would have laughed dismissively.
"It was harder (to take) because I have never worked that hard in my life."
-- Juan Pablo Montoya, on his disappointing 2012 season
“At this point, I think Chip and everybody, we all expected to run a lot better and have more wins (on the Cup side),’’ Montoya said. “Absolutely more wins.
“But I think Chip realized last year a lot needed to be done and he put a lot of things in place. The problem is once you put all those things in place, you’re not going to get results overnight. I hope we’re going in the right direction and it’s given us a little bit of a window to show we’re headed in the right path.’’
Ganassi is absolutely convinced that for Montoya, the sports car win is a good omen for the stock car.
“That's a big shot in the arm for any driver in any series to start off the season with a win, and obviously it's a completely different car than he's driving on a full‑time basis, but a win is a win, and it all adds up and it all means something,’’ Ganassi said. “There's not a driver out there that'll tell you it's not a motivating factor to start the season off with a win.”
It’s the third Rolex 24 victory for Montoya in a race that pits the best drivers from all forms of racing against one another. His seven Formula One victories, his 1999 Indy car championship, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 win and his two victories in NASCAR’s big leagues have earned Montoya elite status even in that company.
But he’s noticed that even during NASCAR race weekends, autograph seekers still overwhelmingly hold out F1 photos or memorabilia for him to sign or want to talk about his dominating victory in his first Indy 500 try.
And it motivates Montoya to diversify his resume with more stock car success, even if it’s been a more difficult path than he or Ganassi originally figured.
Because of his open-wheel background, Montoya’s wins at the series’ two road courses -- Sonoma, Calif., (2007) and Watkins Glen (2010) -- were no surprise. But after making the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2009, Montoya’s No. 42 Target team has struggled, undergoing multiple transitions in the elusive search for the right chemistry.
Last year, for the first time in his career -- including his seasons in Formula One and Indy cars -- Montoya failed to have a single top-five finish. His two top-10 showings were also a career-low in Sprint Cup competition. He led only 22 laps all season.
“It's frustrating because our speed wasn’t that bad -- I mean, we had some really bad weeks -- but our luck, there was nothing we could do to make it right,’’ Montoya said. “Everything we worked on, there was always something that went wrong. Things that are completely outrageous that never happen were happening. It was just an off year for everybody.
“The good thing is it makes everyone work harder and focus more. Everyone on this team is focused more. I’m more focused and determined to do well and I think it's going to pay off.’’
Montoya insists that he has adapted his driving style for NASCAR and has been as perplexed as any of the armchair quarterbacks who expected more from one of the sport’s great natural talents.
“Last year, everybody just had such high hopes, honestly,’’ Montoya explained, saying that his team was prepared to better an underachieving, winless 2011 season that resulted in only two top-fives.
“We started the year thinking ‘we can’t do this again.’ And we actually did worse (in 2012).
“It was harder (to take) because I have never worked that hard in my life. I put a lot of time and effort into it. If you told me to look back and find where I could have done a better job, honestly, I would be speechless. I looked at everything and we worked at everything.’’
This season, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team will use Hendrick Motorsports power. Montoya is hopeful that proven entity combined with the new Generation-6 car will be just the break the team needs to re-establish it as a legitimate contender.
And it can’t come soon enough.
“In a weird way, I don’t want to be overly optimistic about it because last year I was and it was such a hard year so I want to keep the emotions in check,’’ Montoya said, pausing to make eye contact.
“But we’ve been going testing and we’ve been pretty good. … And we all have big hopes. We just have to go out there when it matters and get the job done.’’