Montoya showing patience and results
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Juan Pablo Montoya stepped onto the first tee box for a golf outing on a glorious spring day two years ago and swung his driver so hard that it sucked the air out of your mouth.
Oops. Out of bounds.
"Freaking moron!" Montoya yelled.
That's all you needed to know about Montoya back then. He would rather hit a driver 100 yards out of bounds than hit a 3-wood down the middle of the fairway, which he easily can do. He was the same way on the track, believing it was best to be aggressive from the drop of the green flag until the final lap.
That didn't work out so well for NASCAR's first Colombian-born star during his first two Sprint Cup seasons. His car often found the wall -- "out of bounds," in golf terminology -- or the side of a fellow competitor.
The former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion finished way too many races with a car in the relative condition of a bent 3-iron. He crashed out four times as a rookie and eight more times last season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who finished 10th through 12th in the 2008 Chase, crashed out only five times combined. That's why they were in the Chase and Montoya was 25th in points, a drop of five spots from his rookie season.
Montoya doesn't play as much golf these days. He's more into windsurfing, in which he's more dependent on where the air takes him instead of how much air he can create.
His driving is a bit more under control as well. His average start has improved from 23.3 in 2008 to 13.3. His average finish has improved from 23.9 to 15.9.
He's gone from an also-ran in the standings to 13th, only 16 points out of the 12th and final spot for the Chase heading into the bye weekend.
There are a number of reasons why. The merger between Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. into Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, which meant a switch from Dodge to Chevy, has given him more horsepower than ever. He also is benefiting from experience and new crew chief Brian Pattie.
But the biggest reason is patience. He's OK with hitting the 3-wood.
"Believe it or not, he has gotten a lot more patient," said Keith "Hoss" Armstrong, the tire specialist for the No. 42 car.
Armstrong knows. He worked with Montoya on the Indy car side in 1999 and 2000 and has been with him since he made the switch to stock cars three years ago.
"Compared to his Indy car days, he's gotten a lot more patient," Armstrong said. "That first season he would beat and bang and tear the car up the first half of the race. Now he's learning to pick and choose what he does and save the car more for the end and try to keep the fenders on them."
Lead-lap finishes are proof of that. In 2007 Montoya finished on the lead lap in 15 of 36 events, or 41.6 percent of the time. Last year it was 13 of 36, or 36.1 percent.
Through seven races of 2009 he has been on the same lap as the winner five times, 71.4 percent.
His seventh-place finish at Texas on Sunday gave him three straight of 12th or better for the first time in his career.
"That's one of the things we talked about before the season, just racing smarter," Pattie said. "We can't have stupid DNFs. You're allowed maybe one DNF in the first 26 races if you have a shot at making the Chase. He understands that, and he's had a lot more give-and-take than he has in previous years."
The one time Montoya tried to get too aggressive early in a race, he wound up pinched into the wall going four wide at Las Vegas. He limped home to a season-worst 31st.
"You've got to be smart," Pattie said. "Mark Martin runs smart. I've given him examples of people and how they race to watch. He's come a long ways."
Making more friends
We're back on the golf course two years ago. The foursome 200 yards ahead of us was playing slowly, and Montoya grew tired of waiting.
"I've been known to hit into people," he said.
Everybody in the group laughed. One person sarcastically said, "Really?"
"Yeah, I don't make friends too easy," Montoya said.
That was his reputation in Indy cars and F1. Al Unser Jr. publicly criticized Montoya, then 24, before he made his first Indy 500 start in 2000.
"Juan is very, very aggressive," the two-time 500 champion said. "You'd better respect Indianapolis, or it will bite you hard. I won't race him any different than I will race anybody else, but my advice to him: They carry people out of here on stretchers."
Montoya ticked off more than his share of competitors during his first two years in Cup. Kevin Harvick threatened to "kick his a--" after the two tangled in a 2007 race at Watkins Glen.
But all has been quiet through seven races other than a mild exchange with Jamie McMurray at Bristol.
"He's racing with a different attitude," Pattie said. "His reputation precedes him. We have to be smarter and race maybe a little cleaner because we race these guys every week for 36 weeks. Enemies don't help you any."
That doesn't mean Montoya doesn't tick somebody off every once in a while. He's just learned there are times to back off and save the aggression for the end of the race.
"Juan has an aggressive style," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who after his win at Texas leads the points by 162 over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. "But he has a lot of talent, and you have to give him a lot of credit and respect for that.
"He has been more consistent this year, but I never thought he was out of control -- just aggressive."
Hanging it out
Back on the tee box, Montoya hung his drive about 20 yards over the water and drew it back toward the fairway to get as much distance as possible out of his small frame.
"Sometimes I hit the ball so hard it scares the hell out of me," he said that day. "My problem is consistency."
Montoya thought he was gaining some of that when Ganassi replaced crew chief Donnie Wingo with Jimmy Elledge early last season. They finished second in their first race together at Talladega and started sixth the next week at Richmond.
But less than a month into their partnership, Ganassi fired Elledge and replaced him with Pattie. Montoya was not happy. He let his anger carry over onto the track, which buried him deep in the standings.
"Obviously, the summer [of 2008] was tough because Juan was on me and I was on to him," Pattie said. "At Indianapolis it started clicking. Even though the results weren't there, the people started recognizing we were doing some good things."
Pattie's calm, methodical demeanor may have been the best thing ever to happen to the fiery Montoya. He is able to break things down statistically in a manner that helps the driver understand what it takes to be successful.
Obviously, the summer [of 2008] was tough because Juan was on me and I was on to him. At Indianapolis it started clicking. Even though the results weren't there, the people started recognizing we were doing some good things.” -- Brian Pattie
"What I see is a really strong balance and respect for each other," Earnhardt Ganassi Racing president Steve Lauletta said. "'Balance' meaning Brian is very calm, keeps things at the same level during the race. He also keeps Juan pumped up behind the wheel and understanding what is going on around him."
The two have provided hope for an organization that is down to two cars after shutting down two teams -- the No. 40 last season and No. 8 this week -- within the past year because of lack of sponsorship.
Lauletta hopes what the organization has learned in seven races will help lift the performance of Martin Truex Jr., who sits at 24th in points, in the coming weeks.
"He's one of the greatest drivers on the planet," Lauletta said. "He's proven that in everything he's done. That's why Chip decided to do what he did bringing him here. He knew as he worked at it he was going to prove he was one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR."
Montoya knew it wouldn't be easy. He came in expecting a steep learning curve despite all the hoopla around him due to his success in other series.
"I think we are close," said Montoya, spending his off weekend with family and friends in Colombia, where a few windsurfing excursions are planned. "There are a number of reasons for the improvement and gaining experience is one of them. I am becoming more and more comfortable at every track, and that is a great feeling.
"The move to Chevy cannot be overstated, too. That has been great in every way."
Montoya's patience can't be overstated, either.
Montoya hit a 3-wood right down the middle at the urging of the group two years ago to prove a point. One hole later, the driver was back in his hand and balls were spraying everywhere.
He indeed has come a long way since then.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.