Montoya, others long for Victory Lane
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine you're Albert Pujols and you haven't hit a home run in 114 games. Or you're Brett Favre and you haven't thrown a touchdown pass in 99 games. Or you're Kobe Bryant and you haven't made a field goal in 77 games. Or that you're any one of these athletes and you haven't won a game in more than a year.
You'd be pulling your hair out.
Banging your head against the wall.
Kicking the family dog.
Now you know why Ryan Newman was so ecstatic on Saturday night when he ended a 77-race losing streak, and why Jeff Gordon and a few others were frustrated as hell that they weren't there celebrating instead.
Losing is no fun, even in a sport like the Sprint Cup Series, where you can win a championship without winning a race. Go more than a season without a trip to Victory Lane and everyone from fans to close relatives starts questioning your ability. You may even question yourself.
When you finally win again the emotion is almost overwhelming. You could see it in Newman's face and hear it in his voice.
So who'll be next to feel that thrill, to experience that sensation? Newman wasn't the only driver who has gone more than a season without a victory, you know. Kevin Harvick hasn't won since the 2007 Daytona 500, a string of 114 straight races. Carl Edwards, who won a season-high nine races in 2008, hasn't won in 43 consecutive events.
Four-time Cup champion Gordon, who has 82 career wins, hasn't won since Texas a year ago, a 36-race winless streak.
And all of these drivers would make the Chase if NASCAR's 10-race playoff started today.
Then there's Juan Pablo Montoya, arguably one of the most talented drivers on the planet. He has gone 99 races, all the way back to Sonoma in 2007, without a win.
So who's your pick to feel what Newman did at Phoenix? Gordon has been awfully close with seven runner-up finishes, including Saturday, since his last victory. He was within 100 yards of winning at Martinsville two weeks ago before caution came out to force overtime.
Maybe it'll be Burton, who finished second in the final two races of 2009, had a third earlier this year and was in position to win at Martinsville before blowing a tire late while chasing down Denny Hamlin.
Maybe it'll be Earnhardt, who finished second at the Daytona 500 thanks to a wild charge on the second green-white-checkered finish.
Regardless, in today's world, where parity is supposed to be more prevalent than ever, it is hard to believe that three-fourths of the Chase field hasn't won in a year. It makes one fully understand when drivers say, "You never know when your last win will come."
For my money Montoya will be the next to snap his dry spell. He led 104 laps at Phoenix, arguably one of his worst venues before Saturday, and finished fifth. He has had a top-5 or top-10 car in every race this season, only to be done in by blown engines or being caught up in somebody else's mess.
Last year it would have been harder because we were finishing like 10th or 12th every week. Now we have cars that can finish in the top five, and I think if you can do that, you can a gain a lot of points pretty fast.” -- Juan Pablo Montoya
As he said before Phoenix, "It sucks because we should be top-5 in points if we would have finished every race. ... The bright side is it sucks not because we are slow -- it sucks because we have had a lot of issues."
Montoya has been fast, off the truck for the most part. His average starting position of 8.3 is a dramatic improvement over the 12.8 of 2009 when he made the Chase for the first time. Were it not for things beyond his control, such as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray taking him out at Las Vegas, he easily would be inside the top 12.
As it is he is 21st in points, 132 out of the Chase. No driver has come from farther back than 19th seven races in -- Martin Truex Jr. in 2007 -- to make NASCAR's playoff.
But the belief here is Montoya will be that person, and he'll end his winless streak along the way.
"It is still very early," Montoya said. "Last year it would have been harder because we were finishing like 10th or 12th every week. Now we have cars that can finish in the top five, and I think if you can do that, you can a gain a lot of points pretty fast."
Crew chief Brian Pattie has done the math. It is his goal to be close to the top 12 before the off week in July. With several of Montoya's favorite tracks -- Indianapolis (102.0 driver rating) and Watkins Glen (101.4) -- following the break, the thought is they will propel him into the Chase.
"I have to keep goals," Pattie said. "I have to keep the driver involved and explain to him this is where we're headed, this is what we're doing. It's an easier plan for myself to follow. It's an easier plan for Juan to follow. It's just based on the law of averages."
And the law of averages not only tell Pattie that his driver can rally, they tell him his driver will win. Soon.
"If you continue to run up front and lead laps, you're going to win races," he said.
That is what every crew chief of a driver in a winless slump is saying. That is the goal of every driver going through what Newman went through before Saturday. That is why Gordon was frustrated, but not to the point of banging his head against the wall.
That doesn't mean it's easy to handle. That doesn't mean Gordon, Harvick, Earnhardt or any of the rest of those looking to end a drought won't feel like kicking the dog if they lose again this week at Texas.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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