Friday, February 23, 2018
Sports

Montoya takes Sprint Cup near-win in stride

RICHMOND, Va. — It has been a season of bad breaks for Juan Montoya, so it was only fitting Saturday when things again didn't go his way.

Montoya was sailing toward his first victory since 2010, and his first ever in Sprint Cup on an oval, when a caution flag ruined everything.

He had led 67 laps in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway and was four laps from the checkered flag when Brian Vickers hit the wall.

Montoya screamed into his radio, pounded the steering wheel, then quickly collected himself to consider the big picture: He came in 27th in points with nothing to show for the improvement Chip Ganassi Racing has made this season.

"I know we want to win, but we need the points," Montoya radioed crew chief Chris Heroy as they debated strategy.

Montoya pitted from the lead and took four tires. He restarted sixth in an outside lane clogged by cars on old tires. Kevin Harvick restarted seventh, behind Montoya but in the inside lane, and he darted his way around the traffic to win.

Montoya settled for fourth, his first top-five since Martinsville in 2011.

"We got that caution at the end and it was a no-brainer to take tires," Montoya said. "I think what hurt us is we restarted on the outside and when you restart on the outside and people got really bad tires, everything packs up. And when you're on the outside, where are you going to jump? When you are on the inside, you can just jump to the guys."

Disappointed? Sure. But Montoya saw the silver lining: "Remember, before this we had six really bad weeks."

Terrible weeks, in a season of so much promise and pressure.

In his seventh season since leaving Formula One to join NASCAR, Montoya has no more time left on his contract unless Ganassi picks up a team option.

With so many expectations to take NASCAR by storm, Montoya has just two road course victories and a lone appearance, in 2009, in the Chase for the Championship. Ganassi has made numerous changes, including a revolving door of crew chiefs.

This year, Montoya went to Richmond with six finishes of 20th or worse in eight races, while teammate Jamie McMurray had three top-10s and was 10th in points (McMurray fell to 12 after finishing 26th).

The difference between Montoya and McMurray appears to be bad luck.

Montoya has been plagued by loose wheels, flat tires, a fuel pump problem, a gearbox issue — the list goes on. And when management replaced his front tire changer before Kansas, Montoya was stymied in that race by another loose wheel.

So this time Montoya, who rose to 24th in the standings, was okay in the end.

"We had a great car. Same as last week, we had a great car," Montoya said. "The pit crew redeemed themselves. … We needed to come out of here and be smart."

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