When a racing fan sees or hears the name Juan Pablo Montoya, most will probably think about those amazing open wheel days, which included the 1999 FedEx CART Series title, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 victory, and the '03 Monaco Grand Prix win. After all, that's how the pride of Bogota, Colombia became a household name to the international motorsports scene.
Others may recall some of Montoya's stock car career, immediately recalling the '12 Daytona 500 in which he wrecked his No. 42 Chevy into one of the track's safety trucks, engulfing the third turn in a volley of flames. Suddenly, the horrific accident became something of a running joke in the NASCAR world, often showing up in internet "memes" and the subject of some fans' attempts at by now old humor.
Somehow, it's easy to forget that JPM's a two-time race winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, as he took the checkered flag at Sonoma, CA in '07 as well as coming home in P1 at Watkins Glen just three years later. Along the way, he's learned to become not only an adept wheelman in a stock car, but he's also become a speedway specialist. And this isn't just the high banked turns of Talladega or Daytona that's being brought up.
Rather, he's learned to become one of the solid drivers at tracks that require a balance between finesse and aggression, resulting in those two top-10's at Richmond and Darlington.
Two races ago, it looked as if Montoya would be driving to his first closed circuit win in NASCAR before a late race caution for Brian Vickers' grinding crash between turns three and four derailed those plans. Still, he emerged out of Richmond with a fourth place result.
Darlington was more of a race where Montoya's car seemed to improve as the race went on, as the No. 42 team clambered their way to place eighth at the track that's "Too Tough to Tame." Although all the praise and accolades went to Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 team, one team that left Darlington, SC on a relatively positive note was that Target team.
"Another great run for our Target team," Montoya said via his Twitter account. "Very proud of all the guys."
Mind you, this isn't to declare Montoya as this year's Sprint Cup champion, although that would be a very popular and amazing scene should the former F1 standout hoist stock car racing's most premier championship. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has improved but they've still got to contend with the pecking order challenge they deal with as a Chevrolet organization and secondly, even alongside their manufacturer comrades at Hendrick, there's those fast Gibbs Toyota cars to contend with.
Instead, it's to say that while some are focusing on Denny Hamlin's bid at a wild card seed following his four race recovery period, it might not be a bad idea to also take notice of Montoya's strong performances in recent races. It is not exactly a new concept for Montoya to be in the Chase, as he made the postseason field in '09 en route to a strong eighth place points finish.
Crew chief Chris Heroy seems to finally be gelling with his aggressive but amazingly talented driver in his second full season as the No. 42 Target team's head wrench. Along with their building chemistry is just overall much more reliable and stronger equipment.
Perhaps their offseason move to have Hendrick as their power plant as been one of the biggest differences, as they're finally able to unload fast cars from the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing campus.
How many times last year would the Nos. 1 and 42 Chevy teams look off at any given race? It's been a different story this year, although some good luck has avoided them to have complete races. Quoting Kenny Wallace when he once drove a car with a Yates Ford motor in '97, "Now I know how an astronaut from NASA feels." That's probably the same sentiments that Montoya has with his cars now powered by Hendrick.
Thirdly, it could be that Montoya, now in his eighth year of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, has taken well to the Gen-6 cars. He seemed to take the Car of Tomorrow when he first came into the sport, as he had nothing else as a basis point to go by, just as he does now with the new chassis.
Whatever the reason, Montoya and the No. 42 team could be off to a great, hot summer stretch where the top-10's start to become top-five finishes. While there's still plenty of racing and positions to make up before talking about a title run in 2013, it's definitely not out of the equation that JPM could be driving his way into Victory Lane before the "Race to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase."
Although most of the focus in the Sprint Cup circuit will be on the Hendrick, Gibbs, and Roush-Fenway teams, don't overlook Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, particularly Juan Pablo Montoya and his No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS team. They could be a fun team to follow throughout the season, especially if EGR's long-term investment pays off with not only another trip to Victory Lane, but also a berth as a Chase contender again.