Published August 08, 2010
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – It's all quiet now in Juan Pablo Montoya's corner at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. No shouting or cursing. A near-perfect race has the No. 42 team feeling pretty darn good for a change.
The hard-driving Colombian erased 113 races of futility on Sunday, winning a long duel with Marcos Ambrose and the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International.
"It's nice," Montoya said after his second Cup win — the other coming on the road course at Sonoma in 2007. "We executed right. We did what we had to all day and we really ran smart. The last few weeks have been really frustrating for the whole team because we've been so close to victory and it seemed to keep slipping away."
Frustration had mounted when crew chief Brian Pattie's pit strategy backfired at the previous two races. A late four-tire call likely cost Montoya a win at the Brickyard 400 — teammate Jamie McMurray kissed the bricks instead — and Montoya finished 16th a week ago at Pocono after starting second. Another questionable pit call was the culprit that led to harsh words over the radio.
A prerace talk at Watkins Glen with team co-owner Chip Ganassi helped clear the air. Then Montoya went out, withstood repeated stalking and challenges from Ambrose, and won going away.
"To tell you the truth, I feel more relieved than happy right now," said Montoya, the first former Formula One driver to compete full-time in NASCAR. "It's been a really hard road. We've lost a lot of them, gave away a lot of them. It gets frustrating, everybody fighting."
At Sonoma, Montoya won with fuel mileage. He dominated at Watkins Glen, leading 74 of 90 laps, and beat Kurt Busch to the line by nearly 5 seconds.
Montoya started third, and when McMurray, who started on the front row, got past polesitter Carl Edwards on the first lap, Montoya followed. He then passed McMurray on lap 5 to take a lead he would rarely relinquish.
Montoya led the next 20 laps as Ambrose slowly picked his way through traffic, going from 11th to second by lap 17. From there, it became a two-car race until the final 15 laps, when the handling on Ambrose's No. 47 went away.
Ambrose was third, his third straight top-three finish at Watkins Glen, followed by AJ Allmendinger and Carl Edwards. McMurray, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 10.
It was the first career victory for Pattie, who fought back tears after watching the No. 42 take the checkered flag.
"It's huge," Pattie said. "I still want to win on an oval. He wants to prove his point. The Brickyard was my fault. Hope this makes up for it. Trophies mean a lot. It's pretty cool."
Montoya was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, made a strong run early in the 10-race postseason, and finished eighth in points. His chances of making the Chase this year vanished early. He's failed to finish seven of the first 21 races and is well out of contention.
"Last year, we were so hung up on making the Chase that it was all about numbers, it wasn't about being fast or slow," said Montoya, who dominated the 2009 Brickyard 400, only to lose a chance at his first victory on an oval by speeding on pit road. "It was about bringing the car home every week. This year, we thought we were going to do the same thing. But by race five, we had three DNFs.
"Then you've got to be realistic about what's going to happen. I started being aggressive, and a lot mistakes came. I think this will really bring the team together. It's a great thing for the future."
Ambrose won his third straight Nationwide race over the 11-turn, 2.45-mile Watkins Glen layout on Saturday. He was poised to capture his first Sprint Cup victory at Sonoma in June when things went awry. He stalled his No. 47 Toyota while leading under a late caution, was unable to keep pace, had to restart seventh when he couldn't get it refired, and finished sixth.
He seemed destined to finally break through at The Glen, but the handling on the last set of tires was off and Kurt Busch slipped past him late.
"It hurts," said Ambrose, who announced recently that he was leaving JTG-Daugherty Racing after the season. "It doesn't feel nice. That last set of tires cost us the race."
Montoya was able to pull away on every restart, but each time Ambrose reeled him in. When the race restarted for the final time with 15 laps remaining, Kurt Busch passed Ambrose as Montoya took off, pulling away as Busch kept Ambrose at bay.
Ambrose got past Busch in the first turn of lap 77 and began the chase again as it became a two-car contest. This time, Ambrose was unable to cut into the lead as Montoya steadily pulled away, increasing his lead from 1.7 seconds to 4.2 seconds in five laps.
"We lost the handle on it on the last stop," Ambrose lamented. "We tried hard all day. Juan drove a heck of a race. He wasn't giving me anything. I just wore out everything trying to pass him."
A third of the way into the race, Ambrose was on Montoya's back bumper and stayed there as Montoya was hard on the brakes, often smoking the tires. They nearly touched on lap 39 and were side by side in the inner loop at the top of the high-speed esses the next time around. Ambrose finally made the pass on the 41st lap in turn one, a hard downhill right-hander, forcing Montoya onto the runoff area with an aggressive inside move.
"I even said on the radio, 'Why is he trying so hard? Just ride for a little,'" Montoya said. "I'll tell you what — I was surprised."
Both pitted together with 30 laps remaining, and Montoya beat Ambrose out before a caution flew for debris.
Two more cautions — there were five altogether for 13 laps — erased any worries about fuel in case of overtime.
"He's driving a great race," Ambrose said of Montoya during one of the cautions. "He's really hard to pass. It's going to be a big battle. I'm going to see if I can force him into a mistake."
He never got the chance.