Juan Pablo Montoya pulls out of his garage stall and heads for the track at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Juan Pablo Montoya is now officially a stock car driver.
Montoya, the former Formula One standout, made his competitive debut last October in an ARCA race at Talladega, finishing third.
This season, he’ll be a NASCAR Nextel Cup rookie, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
It was a whirlwind start to NASCAR’s first international “hire.”
“It was fun, but it was freaky,” says Montoya, whose resume will now say “First Stock Car Race: The ARCA Food World 250.” “Initially I started out just trying to get comfortable, and then I was in the middle of the pack, and I kept thinking, ‘Watch out, watch out, watch out.’
“We moved a little, dropped back, then pushed and pushed to the front. This was the most fun I’ve had racing in a long time.”
Montoya’s car was damaged in an early mishap, but it didn’t seem to prevent him from challenging all comers.
“If the race had kept going, I was going to go for it at the end,” Montoya says. “But it was a great day.”
The race ended due to diminishing light, giving Rank Kimmel the victory.
Still, Montoya’s ability to make himself at home in a stock car series was impressive.
“He did OK for a rookie,” Kimmel says with a smile. “No, you knew he was going to do well, but it bodes well for this series that he didn’t completely dominate.”
In many ways, Montoya’s story is a true-life version of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
But it certainly isn’t played for laughs.
The summer movie focused on a good ol’ boy stock car driver being challenged by a Formula One sensation.
Just a few months later along comes a Formula One great encroaching on the stock car world.
“The car is working really good, and the guys back at the shop did a great job,” says Montoya, who got a feel for stock car racing the week prior to his ARCA start. “I wanted to prepare for next year and learn the draft. I’ll probably make a few mistakes and get knocked out of line, but that’s part of it.”
Montoya, driving a Dodge, spent much of his first morning drafting with the rest of the field. He had been held back from participation due to his Formula One contract but was finally cleared in early October.
“It was easy to draft because when you’re not racing for position, you can learn things,” he says. “I was getting a feel of how to get in and out of traffic, and it’ll be different in the actual race.”
The Colombia native, 31, has a combined 137 starts in CART, IndyCar and Formula One, with 18 wins, 26 poles, 60 top-fives and 79 top-10s. He was the youngest CART champion in the history of the series, claiming the crown at the age of 24. It was CART where he first teamed with Ganassi.
In five seasons as a Formula One standout, he finished sixth or better in the standings each year.
He said he has now been able to find his comfort zone in a very different kind of machine.
“In Formula One the rear wing is really high, and with these cars the spoiler is lower, so actually your (visual) perspective is better,” Montoya says. “Honestly, I’m very comfortable in the car. I’m especially comfortable in the (Nextel) Cup cars I’ve practiced in.”
It was a Cup car that Montoya suffered his first mishap in, during a test at Kentucky Speedway.
Montoya wasn’t concerned with grabbing checkered flags in 2006.
“My only goal is to learn – that’s been my only goal since I started testing,” he says. “I’m totally focused on getting ready to race Cup in 2007.”
Montoya is the first Formula One pilot to make the full-time move to a NASCAR series. In 2005, he registered three victories in the F1 series, finishing fourth in the standings. This season he was sixth in the points chase after 10 races when he announced he would leave Formula One and reunite with Ganassi in NASCAR. After signing a multi-year deal to drive the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge, he was immediately banned from F1 competition.
He has since practiced steadily in stock cars and now gears up for a Rookie of the Year run in 2007.
Marking His Spot
Mark Martin was supposed to be finished with Cup competition at the close of the 2006 season.
In fact, he spent that entire season saluting his fans, who could continue to follow him in NASCAR’s truck series.
Martin will return in 2007 – on a limited basis and without car owner and friend Jack Roush at his side.
Martin ended his 19-year association with Jack Roush at the close of the 2006 campaign, opting instead to co-drive the U.S. Army-sponsored Chevrolet with Regan Smith beginning in ’07. Martin was originally set to drive a full NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series slate for Roush in ’06, but returned to the owner’s Cup camp when Kurt Busch left the multi-car team late in 2005.
Now Martin’s future truck schedule is also in limbo, since his partnership with Roush officially ended with the final Cup race of the season.
“I can’t thank Jack Roush enough for what he has done for me – not just professionally, but personally,” Martin says. “He took a chance on me in 1987 when no one else would.”
The 47-year-old pilot recently decided he could still be competitive at the sport’s highest level, although he wanted to race on his own terms. Those terms – at least for 2007 – are 20 Cup races, plus the Bud Shootout at Daytona and the Nextel All Star Challenge at Charlotte.
“Jack has five teams that are all competitive, and there just wasn’t an opportunity at Roush Racing for a split season,” Martin says.
It has yet to be determined how many NCTS and NASCAR Busch Series events he will run in the future.
“I have so much flexibility, and starting next year I won’t have to worry about points or worry about running out of gas on the last couple of laps,” says Martin. “The deal I have with MB2 is a multi-year deal, so I’ll have the option of adding more races to the schedule if I want to.”
While Martin admits he had lucrative offers to jump to another team and run the full 36-race slate in 2007, MB2 gave him the chance to play the role he wanted to play.
“I can be flexible, and I can help develop Regan and his career, and that’s what I want to do right now,” Martin says. “Look, I don’t want to be out there just running around – I want to be competitive. And on a good day, I can still run with these younger guys.
“But I look at racing 22 races and I’m thinking, “Wow, that’s 14 races where I can be with my family.’ That’s what makes this so good. Plus, the MB2 team has struggled some, and this is a challenge to help turn things around.”
Roush says he and Martin will always remain close.
“I’ve been chasing my race cars and helping drivers and shuffling crews around the highways and byways all over North America, and this is the end of a very, very proud chapter for me,” Roush says. “The 20 years I spent with Mark have been the proudest of my career.”