NASCAR: Colombian Comet is bleepin’ brilliant

If you’ve ever heard Juan Pablo Montoya unleash a barrage of expletives after missing a shot on the golf course — a shot on the miniature golf course somewhere between the castle and windmill with his young children in tow — you’d realize just how intensely competitive he is.

There are those who live for winning, but Gordon Gekko has nothing on Montoya, NASCAR’s best story of the season for the last two months.

No one except the foolish would have expected Montoya to ace stock car racing in his third season, especially with an outfit like Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Imagine, two irrelevent programs combining forces to give Teresa Earnhardt, Chip Ganassi and Sabates the opportunity to play for a championship. Not even Dale Earnhardt would have spotted that one coming. Not this soon.

Simply making the Chase would have constituted a great season for EGR. If you’re not driving for (or with equipment from) Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush or Childress, you’re second-tier. For Montoya and his team to contend for the title is bleepin’ amazing.

Montoya is not the only open wheel refugee who could succeed in NASCAR, but he is the only one — perhaps outside Sam Hornish — with the kind of job security to really learn the nuances while competing at the highest level. Dario Franchitti, who lost his ride with Ganassi last season because of sponsor issues, won the IndyCar Series title 24 hours ago for Ganassi. He is talented, and he might have eventually been a top 15 driver in Sprint Cup as well if given the time.

But time isn’t always a luxury in a sponsor-driven sport and a tough economy.

With time running down on the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Montoya is positioned to win the championship if he can merely be consistent and get a breakthrough victory in the remaining six races. Just avoid catastrophe and close the deal like he should have at Indianapolis. Like he almost did at California. But at some point, he must win at least once, and the other guys are concerned about it.

Jimmie Johnson won at California for the fourth time in 14 races to take the series lead from Mark Martin. He was followed to the finish line by Jeff Gordon, Montoya and Martin. That’s three Hendrick cars and the Colombian Comet.

“He’s really stepped it up,” Gordon said of Montoya. “Those guys, whatever they’re doing, it’s working. He’s fast.”

Johnson, aiming for his fourth consecutive championship, is aware and wary of Montoya’s surge.

“Week in and week out, he keeps scoring points, running up front for qualifying, racing really smart on the track,” Johnson said.  “I, in some ways, hate to see it because he’s doing a great job. But in other ways, I’m proud of him. I’m proud of the commitment he’s had for the sport, to come over and start over here in the U.S. and race a totally different vehicle.

“He’s a very talented driver. He races people out there well, and I’ve got to commend he and his team. The team has been going through some tough times with the merger, and they only have a two-car effort and things like that, so they’ve done a really good job. Hopefully they just do a decent job the rest of the year, but they’re doing a great job right now.”

If you believe in destiny, maybe you have to believe in Montoya. After all, South America won the 2016 Olympic bid, why not a South American winning a series with southern roots? Suddenly, NASCAR could claim it has a world champion. It’s a moment made for the marketing machine.

Even though he has yet to win this season, Montoya has shown patience to earn the points and play the game. He has shown in the past he can turn it on in crunch time. He knows what it takes to win a bleepin’ championship.

The last thing the No. 42 team needs to worry about is the guy in the car.

Montoya is one of the five best drivers in the series regardless of origin or his position in the standings. He just happens to be a minority in America.

Nevertheless, Montoya could provide a special moment in NASCAR history. Naysayers should be yaysayers. Stock car elitists should be yelling “bravo,” “boffo,” or “bleepin’ aye” at his success.

He won the 1999 Championship Auto Racing Teams championship as a rookie. He won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 in his first go-round. He won the Monaco Grand Prix and six other Formula One races.

That it has taken a driver of Montoya’s caliber three seasons to shine in NASCAR shows just how difficult it is to get in one of these cars and succeed. A year ago, he finished 25th. Are you listening, Danica Patrick? It actually elevates the status of his competitors.

Qualifying for the Chase was only half the battle. Forty percent through — with a third-place finish Sunday at California’s Auto Club Speedway — Montoya is third in the championship. Among his six top 5 efforts this season, four have been in the Chase races. He is still a darkhorse. Until he can win on an oval — and he has come close — he will continue to be a longshot.

But NASCAR has yet to fully realize Juan Pablo Montoya. On equal footing, he could reel off seven wins in a row. With three Hendrick cars in the Chase, Montoya is not on equal footing, but his elevation of Ganassi’s team has shown what a wonderful difference-maker he can be.

When Montoya gets his bearings, and it looks like he is getting close, the rest of NASCAR better bleepin’ watch out. He can make this thing look look like miniature golf.

Child’s play.


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