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Montoya is a hit with new team

Driver has impressed Ganassi Racing folks during his first season in NASCAR.

September 03, 2007|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

It has been five years since Chip Ganassi's stock car racing operation has been relevant. Sterling Marlin led the championship for 25 consecutive weeks in 2002 when he broke his neck.

Broken dreams soon followed.

Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates fell into third-tier status in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and went four years without a victory.

Juan Pablo Montoya, despite being 19th in the Nextel Cup standings, has changed all that.

He may carry NASCAR's diversity agenda on his shoulders, he may upgrade NASCAR on the world stage with his Formula One credentials, but for the guys in the shop in Concord, N.C., Montoya is the reason for hope, the reason to try a little harder on days when it is 107 degrees, as it was Sunday when the Sharp Aquos 500 began at California Speedway.

"He's had everything to do with it," Ganassi said by phone from Detroit, where his Indycar Series team was competing. "Everybody has all the stuff you need, the difference is mental. It's more in people's head. That's the only difference, why it's so important to have a guy like him. It's that intangible. He makes you want to work hard.

"There are guys you want to dig for, and guys you want to dig their graves."

Montoya has a Cup victory in the Infineon Speedway road race, and though he's not a favorite at any of the 34 ovals, those who work on the No. 42 Dodge firmly believe their guy is the guy.

The reason: Montoya knows how to win, they know it, and he can make it happen. His upside is too much to ignore. If fans hate (or love) him now, just wait until he gets his bearings.

"Nobody wants to finish 20th every week," Montoya said. "They want to work as hard as the guy driving the car. If I'm driving the wheels off the car, they'll work their butts off to make sure they give me their best."

Because of his job security, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion and seven-time Formula One winner doesn't worry about trashing equipment. His take-no-prisoners style has been a breath of fresh air, not only for the team, but for the series.

"He reminds me of any of the great drivers we've had in the sport, guys like Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Richard Petty," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications. "He doesn't care about finishing second. . . . His personality is very much like Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s in that he's driven to win and perform."

Among those who know firsthand of Montoya's impact is tire specialist Keith Armstrong, who worked with Montoya during his two years in the Champ Car World Series, including his 1999 championship during his rookie year.

"I know the potential he's got, and there's not anybody I would rather see in the car," Armstrong said. "Every time he gets in the car, you have a chance."

The car still matters and Montoya finished 33rd on Sunday in the Wrigley's Big Red Dodge, three laps behind winner Jimmie Johnson. He started 42nd because of an engine failure in qualifying but had no chance after making contact with Carl Edwards on pit road.

"He's still developing the feel you need," said Tab Boyd, Montoya's spotter. "When it all clicks for him, it would not be impossible for him to win 10 races or more.

"He's learning every lap. From the beginning of a race to the end there's a huge gain."

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martin.henderson@latimes.com

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