Jamie McMurray or Juan Pablo Montoya: Which Driver Will Be His Team's Top Driver in 2011?

Paul CarreauAnalyst IFebruary 13, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 11:  Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, speaks in the garage area with Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 target Chevrolet, during practice for the NASCAR Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway on February 11, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Going into the 2010 season, it was widely expected that Juan Montoya was on the verge of really breaking out in the Sprint Cup Series. As the lead driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, he was expected to finally win an oval race and contend for a berth in the Chase for the Championship.

While Montoya was able to score his second career win, albeit another road course win, it was teammate Jamie McMurray that stole all the headlines. It was McMurray, not Montoya who had the breakout season, and in the process swept the sports two biggest races, along with an impressive win at Charlotte to cap his career year.

Written off by many, 2010 was a dream season for Jamie McMurray. After being the odd man out at Roush Racing after the 2009 season, in which the team was forced to downsize from five teams to four, McMurray spent much of that offseason, trying to find a steady ride for the upcoming season.

In January of 2010, it was announced that McMurray would be returning to drive for Chip Ganassi, the man that he broke into the series with in 2002.

That year, he filled in for an injured Sterling Marlin and promptly went out and won at Charlotte, in just his second career start. It was the shortest amount of time it took anyone to ever win their first career race. After that, he was tabbed as the next big thing in the sport, and much was expected of him from then on.

After seven years of mediocre performances, McMurray returned to his original car owner with just three total wins to his credit, and a best finish of 16th in the standings over the previous four seasons.

McMurray immediately proved that he was still capable of being the driver everyone expected him to be seven years prior. He went out and won the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500.

Most people would have been content if that was the highlight of their season. But that was just the beginning for McMurray. When the series went to the famed Brickyard in August, McMurray backed up his first win of the season, by winning at the sports other most famous track.

Now, the year definitely belonged to McMurray. But even that wasn't enough. In the Chase's only night race, at the home track of NASCAR, Charlotte Motor Speedway, McMurray won his third race of the season. This marked the first time in his career that he won multiple races in the same season.

The year wasn't all perfect for McMurray though. Aside from the three wins, he was also plagued with some very disappointing runs. He had 13 finishes outside the top 20, and as a result he failed to qualify for the Chase.

This season brings high hopes for the rejuvenated McMurray. While it will be nearly impossible to repeat his performance from a season ago, he should still be counted on to win at least once, and if nothing else, at least contend for a spot in the Chase for the second straight year.

Juan Montoya also enters 2011 with high hopes. His 2010 season was similar to his teammates, with the exception that he won just once. Much like McMurray, he was plagued with a high number of poor finishes.

In his fourth full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series, Montoya had 13 finishes of 25th or worse in the 2010 season. A season removed from qualifying for the Chase for the first time in his career, Montoya could only muster a 17th place finish in the points standings.

The highlight of the season came at Watkins Glen, where for the second time in his career Montoya was able to drive into victory lane.

For the second straight year, however, Montoya was the car to beat at Indianapolis, the track that his teammate eventually won. Under a late race caution, Montoya came to pit road while leading and was given four tires by the Target team pit crew.

This decision forced Montoya to restart back in the pack, behind numerous drivers who took just two fresh tires.

Back in the pack, Montoya's car couldn't run with the dominance that it had out in clean air. Running in 10th, and with the laps winding down, Montoya began to really press the issue. He eventually lost control of his No. 42 Chevy and smacked the wall and then got hit from behind by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had nowhere to go and was a victim of circumstances.

Montoya was relegated to a 32nd place finish, after being the dominant car all day.

During the final 10 races of the season, Montoya found many difficulties. He only managed to score one top 10 during that stretch, a third place effort at Talladega. So, if momentum carries over from one season to another, Montoya is certainly on the wrong side of that equation.

I feel that the new season will bring better fortunes for the Colombia native, however. Now entering his fifth season, I think he will finally break through and win a race on an oval. With as well as he has run at Indianapolis the last two years, it almost feels like that track owes him one.

So, who will be the top dog at EGR this year? I think that these two will be very close this season. I give the edge to Montoya, but by the slimmest of margins.

Combined, I expect these two to win three races. Give McMurray one, while Montoya will take two. The problem for both of them is their inconsistencies. I think that the amount of poor finishes that each of them accumulate will leave both of them outside the top 10 in points when the Chase field is set.

However, with the inclusion of the "wild card" rule, in which the two drivers outside the top 10 in points after Richmond that have the most wins are also included in the Chase, this will ultimately benefit Montoya and put him in the Chase.