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Archive for Thursday, July 12, 2007

No regrets

A year after announcing he’d join NASCAR, Juan Pablo Montoya is enjoying stock-car racing

July 12, 2007

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In a world of changing racing fortunes, it could be argued that Juan Pablo Montoya has come out on the wrong end of the career shift he announced a year ago this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

That is not to say that Montoya's move to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series has been without success. He got his first stock-car victory two races ago on the road course at Infineon Raceway, and has at times been surprisingly competitive on oval tracks as well.

But the ride Montoya had in Formula One has become the biggest international story in motorsports, with Lewis Hamilton ringing up nine straight podium finishes and the first F1 victory by a black driver on his way to the lead in the championship standings for the McLaren team.

"Good for him," Montoya said when asked about Hamilton's success.

Montoya, however, has no regrets about his choices.

Montoya, the Colombian who with his NASCAR victory joined Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney as the only drivers to win races in NASCAR, American open-wheel racing and F1, said that while he enjoyed driving the high-tech vehicles used in F1 competition, he's enjoying the racing a whole lot more now that he's in a stock car.

"There is nothing like driving a Formula One car, but there's nothing like racing in NASCAR," said Montoya, the driver of the No. 42 Dodges for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

"Does a Formula One (car) handle 100 times better than a NASCAR (car)? Yes, it does. Does it have more technology? Yes. Everybody knows that. It's not a secret.

"But is racing a NASCAR (car) 100 times better than racing an F1 car? Yes."

It was on USG Sheetrock 400 race day last year at Chicagoland that Ganassi announced Montoya would come to NASCAR. That set off speculation about how a driver who'd been running road courses since age 5 but who had first tried an oval while running for Ganassi in the Championship Auto Racing Teams in 1999 would adapt to a stock car series that runs primarily on ovals.

"Juan has been through a lot of rough-and-tumble things in the year since that fateful date," Ganassi said. "But he never flinched, never once. He didn't have anything but winning on his mind, and that's what's great about him. The fire still burns in his belly to be in the front."

The victory at Infineon Raceway was not only Montoya's first, it was the first win for the Ganassi team in five years. It was a start, in other words, and Montoya said he's eager to keep learning.

"I think on ovals I'm just starting to get the hang of it," he said. "When I get comfortable in the car, I'm competitive. ...When the car is a handful, you're going to look bad. I'm not that comfortable in the car yet that I can just ride it out. I'm not used to that. Doing 200 mph next to the wall, I'm not looking forward to hitting the wall, you know what I mean?"

Despite the ups and downs, though, Montoya said NASCAR has given him the kind of competition that all racers yearn for.

"In Formula One, there's no racing," he said. "You go out and normally the guy that qualified in front of you has a faster car, and the guy behind you has a slower car. ... Then you just get on with your business, do your pit stops and go home. The most exciting part of Formula One is pit stops, because somebody will maybe go a little longer to try to beat you. But if you call beating someone in the pits racing, I think you're in the wrong business.

"Racing is when you overtake someone on the track and you don't see that like you see it in NASCAR, anywhere. In NASCAR, we go from restrictor plate racing, where you're four wide and bumping each other on the track, which is really cool, to learning to run close to the guy in front of you to make him loose so you can get a run on him. You've got to run just fast enough to get your bumper into his bumper so you can squeeze him (so) he gets a tighter exit (out of a turn) and you get the momentum and you clear him. There are so many things that you can do in NASCAR racing that you can't do elsewhere."

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