HOMESTEAD, FLA. (AP) - There’s a handmade Colombian flag hanging inside Juan Pablo Montoya’s motorhome that was given to him by a fan several weeks ago.
Three words are embroidered into the stripes: IndyCar Champ 2014.
Eight years after Montoya came into NASCAR amid great hype and high expectations, he’ll quietly close out his career Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with unmet goals and his long relationship with Chip Ganassi at a crossroads.
Montoya is headed back to open wheel. He will drive for Roger Penske next season in IndyCar, a job he jumped at in September after Ganassi informed him a month earlier he wouldn’t be bringing him back in 2014.
His record currently shows two wins in 252 starts _ both victories on road courses _ and he hasn’t been to Victory Lane since 2010. He never won on an oval and his best season was 2009, when he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and finished eighth in the final standings.
But three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart said there’s no denying the Montoya’s talent. He won the Indianapolis 500, a CART championship and seven Formula One races. Stewart said he recognized Montoya’s skill immediately in 2007 when Montoya participated in the Prelude to the Dream late-model race at Stewart’s Eldora Speedway.
“He can drive,” Stewart said. “The thing that showed me was when we went to Prelude and I had him sit on the door of the car and I showed him how to drive the car down through the pit area and turned around and switched, and he drove it back. I had to show him how to get it rolling and then he took off _ after three laps, he had never been on dirt before and never been to Eldora before, which is not an easy place to go your first time.
“So who knows what the missing piece of the puzzle for him over there? Something wasn’t in the equation.”
“I decided to come here and do it with Chip, and we knew from Day 1 _ he told me it was going to be an uphill battle and it was,” Montoya said. “We worked as hard as we could. If you look at all the years of Ganassi, the only guy who made the Chase was me. From that point of view, I’m happy.
“I think the hardest thing over the years was the amount of changes. There was just no consistency.”
He’s correct on the consistency issue, as Ganassi made five different crew chief changes on the No. 42 team since Montoya’s rookie 2007 season. The organization, which is consistently among the best in IndyCar, has been on a cycle of rebuilds in NASCAR to try to reach a similar level of performance.
Ironically, in the season in which Ganassi decided to let Montoya go and replace him next year with 21-year-old Kyle Larson, Montoya is finally showing consistency on the track. Although he’s 21st in the standings, he has had chances to win on ovals, including Richmond and Dover.
“I put a lot of time into NASCAR and I feel I’ve done as a driver a good job,” he said. “Of course I wanted better results. But there were a lot of weeks we had really good cars, and when we did, we competed well. The only thing I didn’t like was that the ups and downs were too big. It seems like the downs were bigger than the ups, and that was hard.