RICHMOND, Va. — It’s been a season of bad breaks for Juan Pablo Montoya, so it was only fitting when things again didn’t go his way.
Montoya was sailing toward his first victory since 2010, on an oval no less, when an ill-timed caution ruined everything. He had led 67 laps Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway and needed to complete just four more when Brian Vickers hit the wall.
Montoya screamed into his radio, pounded his fist against the steering wheel, then quickly collected himself to consider the big picture: He’d come into Richmond ranked 27th in the Sprint Cup standings with absolutely nothing to show for the improvement Chip Ganassi Racing has made this season.
“I know we want to win, but we need the points,” Montoya radioed crew chief Chris Heroy as they debated strategy.
It was decided that Montoya would pit from the lead, take four new tires and try to win in a frantic two-lap overtime sprint to the finish. But he restarted sixth in the outside lane that was clogged by cars on old tires. Kevin Harvick restarted seventh, behind Montoya but in the inside lane, and he darted his way around the traffic to the win.
Montoya settled for fourth, his best finish since he was fifth at Martinsville in 2011.
“We got that caution at the end and it was a no-brainer to take tires,” Montoya said. “I think what hurt us is we restarted on the outside and when you restart on the outside and people got really bad tires, everything packs up. And when you’re on the outside, where are you going to jump? When you are on the inside, you can just jump to the guys.”
Disappointed? Sure. But Montoya was able to see the silver lining, even in those frantic final seconds when Harvick snatched his victory.
“When Harvick went by I tried to get to the bottom and then (Joey Logano) was there and I said ‘We’ve just got to get a finish,”’ he said. “Remember, before this we had six really bad weeks.”
Terrible weeks, in fact, in a season that started with so much promise and so much pressure.
In his seventh season with Ganassi since leaving Formula One for NASCAR, Montoya has no more time left on his contract unless Ganassi picks up the option the team owner holds. But keeping his seat in the No. 42 Chevrolet could depend on performance in an organization desperately trying to turn a corner.
With so many expectations to take NASCAR by storm, Montoya instead has just two road course victories and a lone appearance, in 2009, in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. But the team struggled mightily, Ganassi has made numerous personnel changes — including a revolving door of crew chiefs for Montoya — and no amount of talent could get Montoya out of the rut.
He recommitted himself to his fitness, focused on his racing and opened the year driving the final stint in Ganassi’s victory in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. It was his third win in the prestigious sports car race, but first driving the final leg.
The momentum from that win never materialized, even though the Ganassi organization appears to be the most improved group in the garage. Montoya went to Richmond with six finishes of 20th or worse in eight races, while teammate Jamie McMurray had three top-10s and was 10th in the standings.
The difference between Montoya and McMurray appears to be bad luck.
Montoya has been plagued by loose wheels, flat tires, a fuel pump problem, a gearbox issue — the list goes on and on. And when management stepped in and replaced his front tire changer before Kansas, Montoya was stymied in that race by another loose wheel.
So to have the chance to run out front Saturday night, and to show his No. 42 team is far better than the results indicate, was a small victory for Montoya and his crew.
Coming oh-so-close drew sympathy from second-place finisher Clint Bowyer, who said he was rooting for Montoya to win once it became clear Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates would not.
“I do feel bad for Juan, he has struggled the last two or three years,” Bowyer said. “I really thought he was going to win that race. ... That was his race. When you see a guy getting beat up and having an opportunity like that — we’re all human. If you don’t have a shot at it, you’d just as soon see somebody that hadn’t won in a long time win it.”
Montoya was OK in the end. He was smiling on pit road, able to shrug off the caution that cost him the race.
“We had a great car. Same as last week, we had a great car,” Montoya said. “The pit crew redeemed themselves. They did a great job all day, no mistakes. That is what we needed. We needed to come out of here and be smart.”