Sunday was the day Juan Pablo Montoya was supposed to end his long drought on stock-car oval tracks.
Then Tony Stewart happened.
Montoya took the lead with 22 laps remaining in Sunday’s FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway and appeared within striking distance of his first Sprint Cup oval victory, but Tony Stewart roared in from the dark and won the race.
Stewart passed Montoya with three laps remaining and finished .788 of a second in front of the Colombian. Montoya has won road-course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen but has been foiled on ovals.
“It was a bit of a hit and miss,” Montoya said. “One of the runs on the green, we made a couple of big changes on the car, and the car just took off, came to life, and it came to life at the right time. It's a shame, you know, there at the end, it was way too loose, and I just couldn't hold Tony off.”
After running much of the early part of the race in the second 10, Montoya rode much of the rest of the way in the top 10. He took the lead with 22 laps to go after leader Jimmie Johnson was blackflagged for jumping a restart.
“Jimmie was laying off about just nearly a car length from me, and I knew he was trying to jump the start,” Montoya said. “And I backed off a little bit for us to line up, and he didn't want to do it.
“When we got to the line, I think he wanted to time it, and he timed it too well. He wanted to get the jump on me, and he just jumped it too much. I would have tried to have done the same. It's one of those deals that when you time it too good, it actually hurts you.”
That left Montoya to battle Stewart – two drivers who, at their best, have been among the top racers in the world.
“Today, we gave ourselves a good chance,” Montoya said. “Just the car was a little bit too much of a handful there at the end. We tried, and I think it was too hot on the tires the run before, and our left tires were completely gone, I think. Taking two [tires] really hurt us, but we had to for the track position. It's one of those deals.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.