By Jerry Bonkowski
INDIANAPOLIS – Poor Juan Pablo Montoya. How can you not feel sorry for the guy?
After all, he led 116 of 160 laps in Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, had a car that was the class of the field and was on pace to become the first driver in history to win both the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis 500, which Montoya captured in 2000.
Not to mention he appeared ready to give his team and organization (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) the biggest highlight it's had in several years.
Unfortunately for the No. 42 team's chances, Montoya was caught speeding coming onto pit road late in the race, prompting him to be flagged with a pass-through penalty – and eventually finished 11th when he likely could have won had it not been for NASCAR's radar gun.
It's almost as if the only luck EGR has been pre-ordained to have is bad luck since Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the fold following the 2007 season.
A win or even a top-5 finish would have done wonders for EGR's collective confidence. Just days after rumors surfaced that Ganassi may be trying to sell his share of the company – if not the whole kit and caboodle if co-owner Teresa Earnhardt agreed to any prospective deal – to Joe Gibbs Racing, EGR and Montoya looked nothing short of outstanding.
And unbeatable, I might add. No one had anything for him, not eventual runner-up Mark Martin, not third-place finisher Tony Stewart and not even race winner Jimmie Johnson.
At one point in the race, the right Juan held more than a five-second lead. But after the speeding penalty, he wound up being the wrong Juan in the long run.
"It kind of sucks, but it is what it is," Montoya said in a very brief, three-question post-race interview. "I thought I was on the speed (limit)."
Montoya came to NASCAR in 2007 with high aspirations and expectations. The sanctioning body continuously played up the fact that not only was Montoya one of the top drivers in open-wheel racing worldwide, both in CART and Formula One, but that he also won the 2000 Indianapolis 500.
Heading into last season, it appeared that Montoya's shift to NASCAR was the start of a full-fledged invasion of foreign drivers into Sprint Cup when he was joined in the series by former F1, CART and Indy 500 champ Jacques Villeneuve, along with 2007 Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti and long-time open-wheel racer Patrick Carpentier.
As it turned out, none of the following three drivers lasted the season. Villeneuve even failed to start the campaign due to lack of sponsorship funding, Franchitti was out by mid-season for the very same reason and Carpentier simply struggled, leading to his dismissal with more than six races remaining.
As for Montoya, since earning his first and only to-date win at Sonoma in June 2007, he's struggled, with just two top-five finishes in 2008 and none thus far in 2009.
But dig a bit deeper and check out Montoya's results of late, and you not only can see a team that has improved dramatically while flying under the radar, but is knocking on the door of victory lane.
Since finishing 20th at Talladega in April, Montoya has recorded seven top-10 finishes in the resulting 11 races, including Sunday's so-close 11th-place showing. He also remains in the top-12 in Chase standings. He came into Sunday's race in ninth position; he leaves IMS in 10th position, 593 points behind the series-leading Stewart, but only 32 points ahead of 12th-ranked Matt Kenseth, who sits in the final make-or-break Chase for the Sprint Cup qualifying spot.
"We have to get top-10s every week and (keep things) right every week because things like that can really screw a championship."
Montoya's heartbreak was the second time this season that he's been victimized by speeding on pit road. He wound up essentially being .11 mph over the limit, prompting NASCAR's action. In layman's terms, it's as if you were caught by a cop on the freeway who wrote you a speeding ticket for doing 56 in a 55 mph zone. It was that close, that miniscule.
But a speeding ticket's a speeding ticket, no matter what.
"We had a deal like that before and once it happens, you can't change it, so it is pretty frustrating," Montoya said. "(Despite that, however) it shows what we've done with the team."
Montoya has been a driver knocking on victory lane's door for the better part of this season. He almost came through Sunday, but that's little consolation, given that the guy with the best car wound up finishing 11th.
Still, there's more racing to be had. The circuit moves to Pocono this coming weekend, followed by Watkins Glen, N.Y., one that likely has Montoya licking his chops because the track is the kind of road course that brings out the best in him.
He finished fourth at Watkins Glen last season. Can he take what he learned – and lost – from NASCAR's by-the-book officials on Sunday and apply it to both Pocono and Watkins Glen for potential victories in one, if not both races?
I think he can. Montoya was without question at the top of his game Sunday. And now that he's going to Pocono, a three-ringed circus of a track that gives the pretense of being part IMS and part road course, followed by an actual twisting and turning venue like Watkins Glen, it puts Montoya in his most natural environment.
To me, it's just a matter of time that Montoya wins again.
He should have, could have and would have won Sunday had it not been for an overly-itchy right foot that tried to push things to the limit, only to come to realize that once he pushed that limit, bad luck quickly followed.
Yes, I'm happy for Johnson, who earned his second Brickyard title in a row and third overall, as well as Martin. They deserved to finish 1-2.
But my heart goes out the most to Montoya. Winning a Sprint Cup race is far from easy, and given all the buildup and hype that preceded Montoya before he joined the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, we should be talking more about a guy who has multiple wins and is a consistent viable contender for the championship.
Instead, we're lamenting about how bad luck once again threw him, his team and the entire EGR organization for a loop. Suffice to say, however, that the fiery Colombian will bounce back in fine fashion, and when he does, the bad luck that has tugged at his sails for so long will be forgotten.
Provided he keeps his heavy foot a bit more on the lighter side the next time victory is within his grasp.