Juan For The Ages: Montoya Makes His Case For This Year's Title Chase

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJuly 12, 2009

JOLIET, IL - JULY 09:  Juan Pablo Montoya leans on the #42 Target Chevrolet in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 9, 2009 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

While everyone's attention in the Cup series may be on the elite drivers of Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing, Juan Pablo Montoya is giving Earnhardt Ganassi Racing fans some reason to look forward to the "Race to the Chase."

On the strength of six top-10 finishes in the past eight races, Montoya and the No. 42 Target Chevrolet outfit have made tremendous strides from his career-long reputation "reliable top-15" finisher to sudden Chase contender in the summer, sitting in the ninth position.

Saturday night's Lifelock.com 400 was a microcosm of the third-year driver's 2009 season: steady gains from a mid-field starting position, some struggles midway in the race, to a tremendous close toward the outset of the event.

"We had a good finish," Montoya said per his post-race comments on his Twitter. "I thought we had a better car but at least we took some more points home.

"The team did an amazing job today. I'm happy!"

Fittingly, one of his associate sponsors on Montoya's sponsor-clad Impact! racing uniform summed up his sentiments on the No. 42 team's race.

Outspoken but with a reason, it appears as if the 33-year-old Bogota, Colombian has finally gelled with crew chief Brian Pattie.

After some tumultuous and sweeping changes within the Ganassi organization from late 2007 to the early portion of 2009, the famed IndyCar/Formula One star had something of a struggle with the Sprint Cup cars.

Tackled with the transition between the truly aerodynamic machines used up to 2007 to the current, boxier Car of Tomorrow bodies, the Ganassi team just did not have the handle with their set-ups to make the 2007 Rookie of the Year winner content behind the wheel.

Switching from the Dodge camp to the Chevrolet brigade, the "newly re-branded" No. 42 team seems to finally find the fit and comfort level for Montoya's driving style.

Couple that with solid leadership from Pattie, a proven crew chief originally from Joe Nemechek's NEMCO Racing operation in the Nationwide Series from 1995 to the early 2000s, and you have a potential surprise pick for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Pattie, who's been a fixture in the NASCAR garage since the ripe age of 19, is the perfect leader for the hard-charging, fearless racer.

Calm, collected, but fired up when put into a pressure-packed situation, he serves as a wonderful counterpart to JPM.

When you add it all up, everything appears well in Montoya Land with nine appearing to be their lucky number.

That's how many top-ten finishes that Montoya has logged so far in 2009, along with their position in the points standings.

However, if you know what kind of competitor this feisty, cagey racer is, then you know that he's not fully content with his season and performances.

While Montoya said that he will race for points over victories, you just have to feel as if the No. 42 team will give it their all in urging those Chevrolets not only to the front, but for wins, if possible.

Whether you're points leader Tony Stewart or a rookie driver like Scott Speed and Joey Logano, Montoya will race you tenaciously for position as if his job is on the line.

Having polished his aggression to a degree this season, JPM has become a sleeper of sorts at each race this year.

From the superspeedway action at Daytona to the cookie cutter action of Joliet, the red and white colors of that Target car are making their rounds (no pun intended) around the finest tracks of America as if its driver has a chip on his shoulders.

Perhaps there is and that's what makes him such a phenomenal racer and quite the impression on his long-time car owner Chip Ganassi.

Having struggled in his rookie campaign and seeing how open wheel peers in Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve had atrocious outings in the Cup series last year, Montoya has performed tremendously with a career year.

Following the much-needed weekend off, the Sprint Cup tour hits it up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Montoya accomplished one of his most proudest achievements in his motorsports career in 2000.

The Brickyard was home to his dominant performance and victory in the Indianapolis 500, driving his famous Target/Ganassi Racing ride to a resounding win over '96 titlist Buddy Lazier.

In 2009, Montoya looks to bookend this decade with yet another triumph at Indy.

If there's anything that fans ought to know with this amazing racer, it's to never count him out in any event that he competes in.

Be it the Grand American Racing Series, the open wheel ranks, or in those gritty stock cars, this international sensation is bound to put on a great show wherever the racing action happens.

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