Montoya, crew chief have it in gear

2009-04-08T00:00:00Z Montoya, crew chief have it in gearThe Associated Press The Associated Press
April 08, 2009 12:00 am  • 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last thing Juan Pablo Montoya wanted was a crew chief change. He didn't want the turmoil and feared another leadership change would unravel his race team.

He was right, too.

Montoya was furious last May when his plea to keep Jimmy Elledge was rejected and team owner Chip Ganassi assigned him Brian Pattie, his third crew chief of the season. The emotional driver let his frustration carry over to the racetrack, creating a strained situation for Ganassi's flagship team.

When calmer heads finally prevailed, the two agreed to focus on turning Montoya and the No. 42 into a legitimate weekly contender.

Seven races into this season, it's clear they're headed in the right direction. With his seventh-place finish Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, Montoya notched a third-consecutive top-12 finish for the first time in his NASCAR career.

Aside from a two-race struggle through Las Vegas and Atlanta, Montoya has been running with the leaders all season and heads into the off weekend ranked 13th in the Sprint Cup standings. He's just 16 points out of a Chase for the championship slot.

"Brian and I work well together," Montoya said Monday. "We understand each other and that helps while we race. We both want to win, and we are getting close to that."

And it could just come on an oval.

As a former Formula One star, Montoya came to NASCAR expecting to be competitive out of the gate. He delivered with road course victories in the Cup and Nationwide Series as a rookie, but road courses are his specialty and he was expected to contend there.

The real issue was everything else on the circuit, and Montoya admitted many times that adjusting to stock cars was the most difficult transition in his illustrious career. But he was 20th in the final season standings that rookie year, and had shown enough improvement that Ganassi proclaimed 2008 a "Chase or bust" season.

It quickly blew up.

Crew chief Donnie Wingo, who had nurtured Montoya through his entry to NASCAR, was moved to Reed Sorenson's team early in the season. Elledge took over the No. 42, and the duo had immediate success with a second-place finish at Talladega.

But less than a month later, Elledge was let go by Ganassi and Pattie was promoted from the Nationwide Series to run Montoya's team. Neither was happy about the move.

"It got off on a rocky start because A: They fired the crew chief that he liked. That was unfortunate and tough for Juan," Pattie said. "And B: I didn't know anything about the Car of Tomorrow. Zero. And we weren't exactly running real stellar at that point, anyway."

So Pattie essentially had to tear everything down and start anew, while also earning Montoya's trust.

The turning point, Pattie said, was a heart-to-heart talk the two had in Montoya's motor home last July in Chicago. Whatever was said that day was enough to convince Montoya to stay with Ganassi despite attractive offers to go elsewhere, and for Pattie to turn down an offseason chance to go crew chief longtime friend David Reutimann.

"The reasons he stayed at Ganassi, and the reasons I stayed over the winter, stem from that conversation," Pattie said. "We have our goals and we know what we're supposed to do. I feel really, really good about our race car, about Juan's attitude and the direction of our race team.

"The Chase is what we're fighting for, and I think we can win on an oval this year."

Montoya and the No. 42 team are succeeding despite the offseason merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc., which brought in Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola as teammates. Almirola is so far unsponsored. Because Ganassi nearly destroyed his race team last year by keeping Dario Franchitti running without proper funding, the team could soon be down to just two cars.

Truex, meanwhile, is off to a horrendous start to the season in a free agency year for the one-time Chase qualifier. A prolonged job search, with the level of uncertainty and speculation that can sidetrack an organization, could also have a ripple effect on Montoya.

But Pattie believes his group is focused on the season goals, and looking forward to next month, when all the cars should be the same. So far, Montoya has raced in old Ganassi cars, while Truex is using old DEI cars.

Once the team has moved to a common chassis, they'll be able to share more information and work together on setups during Saturday practices.

"We'll need that to make the next step forward as far as performance," Pattie said.

There's no doubt, though. For a driver and crew chief who once so opposed their pairing, the two can hardly be split apart now. They ate dinner together every night in Texas, including a stop for burgers at the Love Shack in Fort Worth.

"When I got to that team, I changed a lot of practices and it took me trying a lot of different things to learn the car," Pattie said. "I started over. I told him that I want to be there, that I want to win. Once he saw the commitment level, we've never looked back."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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