RICHMOND, Va.—I feel sorry for Juan Pablo Montoya—and that’s a hard thing to do.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who’s already won two of the world’s most prestigious races, the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who has hobnobbed with princes and enjoyed a champagne lifestyle in some of the world’s most exotic destinations.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who takes private golf lessons at TaylorMade’s exclusive “Kingdom” in Carlsbad, Calif.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy whose hobbies include windsurfing in the tropics and flying remote-control airplanes that can cost upwards of 30 grand.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a 37-year-old guy who just introduced Depend adult diapers as his primary sponsor, a sponsorship that quickly became the butt of a string of good-natured jokes.
Yet, after Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway, I feel sorry for Juan Pablo Montoya. I truly do.
Montoya came within an eyelash of validating his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. But for a caution with five laps left in the posted distance, after Brian Vickers’ No. 11 Toyota smacked the Turn 3 wall, Montoya almost certainly would have recorded his first victory on an oval track since embarking on a full-time Cup career in 2007.
Yes, Montoya has two Cup wins to his credit, at Sonoma in 2007 and at Watkins Glen in 2010, but those came on road courses, and road courses are Montoya’s milieu. Winning on an oval is Montoya’s holy grail, and on Saturday, he was ever so close to grasping it.
As of last Sunday’s event at Kansas, 94 races had passed without a Montoya victory. Heck, more than two years had passed—75 races—since Montoya had posted his last top five in the Cup series, on Apr. 3, 2011 at Martinsville.
Before Saturday night’s race, I chatted with Montoya’s crew chief, Chris Heroy, behind the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing transporter. Heroy told me that Montoya had a top-five car, a potential race-winning car, “if we can just avoid the stupid mistakes that keep putting us in the back.”
Case in point: Montoya had a strong car a week earlier at Kansas but got nothing out of it. A loose wheel required a green-flag pit stop, cost Montoya two laps and ruined his night.
But on Saturday, Heroy was a hero. He kept Montoya on the track through three straight cautions in the final 100 laps, while other lead-lap cars took tires. Montoya led the field to green for a restart on Lap 350 of a scheduled 400, with Kevin Harvick—his Chevy a rocket ship on new tires—in the 11th position.
Kurt Busch was running second at the time, but Montoya kept Busch’s No. 78 Chevy behind him, even though Busch’s tires were fresher by 19 laps. The real threat was Harvick, who charged past cars on older tires and passed Busch for the second spot on Lap 382.
By Lap 389, Harvick was .692 seconds behind Montoya. By Lap 392, the gap was down to .414 seconds. At that point, though, Montoya began to pull away ever so slightly, extending his advantage to .613 seconds on Lap 394.
“I don’t think I was going to catch Montoya, because he had a little bit better drive up off the corner at that point,” Harvick admitted after the race.
The Lap 395 caution changed everything. Harvick and Montoya had no choice but to pit for tires—staying out would have left them at the mercy of cars with better tires behind them. Montoya came out of the pits in sixth place, Harvick in seventh, but Harvick had the preferred inside lane for the restart and used his fresh tires to win the race.
Montoya finished fourth and left the track with a haunting list of could-have-beens.
So I feel sorry for Montoya. Saturday brought home one of the harshest realities of big-time stock car racing: that you can have a winning car, your crew chief can call a perfect race, your pit crew can execute admirably—and you can still lose.
Yes, I feel sorry for Montoya—but not that sorry. After two years fraught with agonizing and sometimes spectacular failures, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has found speed in NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race car.
Tempering Montoya’s disappointment was the realization that he and his team at long last had put a complete race together.
Chances are, Montoya will have another chance to win a race this year, and he’ll look back at Richmond as a watershed moment, not as a lingering source of disappointment.