March 6, 2007
Sunday's Telcel-Motorola 200 Busch Series Race at the Autodrome Hermanos Rodriguez near Mexico City will go down in history as the first NASCAR win for former open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya.
The victory wasn't without controversy, but a full analysis of all the obstacles involved reveals the true scope of Montoya's accomplishment.
First, Montoya's car was wrecked just a few weeks ago during a practice session at Virginia International Raceway. His team not only had to support Montoya during the first two races of the new season in Daytona and California—they also had to rebuild the road course car to prepare for Sunday's event.
Note that this was only Montoya's eighth start in a Busch Series car after spending his entire career in high-tech open-wheel racers. He won the Indianapolis 500 and a CART Championship, and had seven career wins in Formula One—including a victory in the coveted Grand Prix of Monaco.
Adapting to stock cars isn't easy, and no one expected Montoya to be dominant out of the gates.
That said, Sunday's road-course race leveled the playing field a bit: Montoya, after all, is just as experienced turning right as he is turning left, and braking and car control are skills that transcend any particular vehicle.
Still, throwing the boxy 3,000-plus-pound Busch cars around on a road course is a challenge few have mastered, which makes Montoya's win all the more impressive.
A mistake-prone qualifying run left Montoya with the third starting spot on Sunday; Scott Pruett, Montoya's teammate at Ganassi Racing, took the pole in his number 41 Juicy Fruit Dodge.
A month ago, Pruett and Montoya shared a victory in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. This weekend, they were competitors—and they'd meet on the track before the race was done.
It didn't take long for Montoya to show he had the better car, and Juan would ultimately lead 43 of the event's 82 laps. The race was originally scheduled for 80 laps, but a late caution resulted in a green-white-checker finish that extended the length.
Even after establishing his superiority, Montoya faced a problem I've never seen in 30 years of watching NASCAR: During his mid-race pit stop, the fuel catch-can valve, which allows gas to enter the tank, came off its mounting. The result was a less-than-full load in the car, which meant that Montoya would eventually have to pit again and hope for the best.
Fortunately, a spin and a caution flag gave the 42 team the break they needed. In only 32 seconds, the Texaco/Havoline crew opened the trunk lid, reattached the valve mount, closed the deck, and completed a four-tire change while fueling the car—and got their driver out of the pits in 19th position.
Now, moving up from 19th to first makes for a pretty daunting climb.
Unless you're Juan Pablo Montoya.
Within two laps of the restart, Montoya had passed his way to 15th. After another caution and another restart, he was up to 12th. Then, in a field stocked with road-racing ringers, Juan got past the likes of Adrian Fernandez and Jorge Goeters, who led three laps on the day. With Montoya charging, Carl Edwards' team made plans with the 42 crew to get the Busch points contender out of the way—and Montoya passed Edwards with ease on another restart.
Yellow flags were abundant during the last 20 laps of the race, which alternately helped and hurt Montoya's ascent through the field. His car was clearly faster than those ahead of him, but road racing requires a rhythm that you can't establish two laps at a time. The field bunches up in single-file restarts, putting cars on each others' bumpers. Then again, turn one at Mexico is a good passing zone: The tight right-hander ends the long front stretch, where a fast run followed by a hard brake can vault one car by another. Montoya made this move again and again, until he found himself behind Pruett and road-course master Boris Said with less than ten laps to go.
After getting by Said, Juan found himself in second place behind Pruitt when the caution flew again. There were no orders in the Ganassi Camp, but the talk was of not taking each other out. Montoya would have to be patient, look for an opportunity, and make the move that would put him out front of the field.
Unfortunately, things didn't go quite so smoothly: Going into turn one, Juan pulled to the right and out-braked his teammate. Pruett didn't see Montoya and tried to cut the corner—and the 42 clipped the right rear of the 41, spinning Pruett and forcing an evasive maneuver from Montoya.
Pruett and his team were upset, and owner Chip Ganassi felt Montoya could have been more patient—but the video replays are clear: Montoya was in position on the inside of the corner and could have backed off to avoid contact, but Pruett initiated the contact by turning in hard. In the end, it was the epitome of "one of those racing deals." Pruett called it dirty, but that's not fair to Montoya. The truth is that both drivers were culpable, and Montoya's team and crew chief were as upset about the incident as anyone.
In any event, Pruett resumed in 17th with five laps to go, while Montoya fended off the advances of Denny Hamlin, last year's Mexico City winner, to claim his first stock car victory.
In a testament to Montoya's popularity in Latin America, the Mexican crowd went wild after his win. In an interesting marketing move, ESPN aired the ESPN Deportes (Spanish) coverage on the flagship station, while the English version played on ESPN2.
The result, of course, was that NASCAR got exactly what it wanted: Millions of new fans south of the border, cheering for a Colombian national who lives in Miami.
Pruett raced through the field to finish fifth, then showed his discontent by bumping his teammate on the cool-down lap. That move, along with his post-race interview, showed a new side of Pruett: hot-tempered and unhappy. Hopefully a more critical analysis of the incident will allow cooler heads to prevail.
But even Pruett's brooding couldn't spoil a great day for the Chip Ganassi team in general and Juan Pablo Montoya in particular. Montoya needed a win to prove that he could cut in a stock car, and now he can focus on showing the world that he's one of the best drivers in history—even when he's turning left.
The full results of Sunday's Telcel-Motorola 200 in Mexico City can be found here:
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