Editor's note: Car owner Chip Ganassi said it's "Chase or bust" for Juan Pablo Montoya this season. AP auto racing writer Jenna Fryer periodically catches up with Montoya during the season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As Juan Pablo Montoya tried to explain his renewed commitment to Chip Ganassi Racing, the boss man walked up the stairs into the driver's motor home for a surprise visit.
"Were your ears burning?" Montoya asked Ganassi.
"No, why? Were you talking about me?" Ganassi answered.
Before his star driver could reply, the owner had Montoya in a headlock as the two playfully greeted each other at Pocono Raceway.
The relationship between the two is as strong as ever, surviving a rocky stretch last month when Montoya openly questioned the direction of Ganassi's NASCAR team. His criticism came after crew chief Donnie Wingo was transferred off his team, and a month later, replacement Jimmy Elledge was fired.
It gave Montoya his third crew chief in a little more than a month, and despite the praise everyone around him had for Brian Pattie, the driver wasn't pleased with the change. Montoya wasn't convinced Pattie wanted the job, and didn't think the crew chief liked him very much.
Three races and two test sessions later, he's had a complete change of heart.
"A lot of people told me Brian would be good, but until it happens -- I've been told so many times in my career that things are going to be great and then they are not," Montoya said. "I'd rather wait and see. The way I've always been is if you expect great things, the fall is a lot bigger. This way I got to be pleasantly surprised."
The two don't yet have the results to show for their budding chemistry. Wrecks at Charlotte in their debut and Pocono on Sunday stole any chance of a good finish, but they squeezed in a 12th-place run two weeks ago in Dover.
But Montoya has been impressed with Pattie's dedication and focus on fostering the relationship. He praised Pattie for the frequent visits he makes to Montoya's motor home to go over notes, future setups and, more importantly, to bond with the driver.
"He's the one making the extra effort to bond together and we go at it the right way," Montoya said. "It gives you a lot of confidence as a driver. You can see the guy trying hard and you'll do what he wants. You'll go the extra mile for him. With Wingo, we worked really hard, we worked really well together and I thought it was pretty good and we had a lot of respect for each other. With Elledge, I liked the guy because he was really aggressive and he was willing to try anything whether it was stupid or not.
"With this guy, he's a combination of both."
So now Montoya is a feeling more committed than ever to Ganassi, who flew to Charlotte during the week of turmoil for a face-to-face meeting where Montoya could express his displeasure. After initially worrying that Ganassi was only trying to appease him, Montoya now believes the owner will find a way to turn around the slumping organization.
"He wants to make things happen. I am sure in a way he wanted to calm me down, but at the same time, you can see he's trying," Montoya said. "I've seen change. I could see two months ago people were more worried about who had more power and who was pulling to what side. I think the whole company is now starting to pull the same way."
And as for the rumors that Montoya might leave Ganassi to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing next season? Nothing to them, Montoya said.
"I've got a deal with Chip, and I am 100 percent behind Chip," he said.
Montoya's Q&A with Fryer:
Q: You're a big fan of "Lost." What did you think of the season finale?
JPM: I haven't seen it because I was waiting to watch it with you, and then you watched it without me.
Q: I only watched it with one eye, because I knew I was going to watch it again with you.
JPM: Well, I haven't watched it because I've been waiting for you. I was going to watch it with you on Saturday [at Pocono Raceway], but then we did a golf outing and the guys from NASCAR, some officials, went out and I thought that would be pretty cool. We went there and played with the officials and it was cool.
Q: OK, so how is that my fault? We could have watched it after you golfed.
JPM: I got back very late. On the way back we saw little kids were racing in dirt on an oval near the track, so we stopped there for a little bit.
Q: You just rolled up on the track? Hey look! Juan Pablo Montoya is here!
Q: Were you recognized?
JPM: Yes, it was crazy. I went into the pits, watched the little go-karts.
Q: Did the kids recognize you?
JPM: They did. I signed a bunch of their cars. It was cool.
Q: So how was the golf?
JPM: It was good. And I've been playing good. I played the St. Jude's Pro-Am in Memphis and played with [Colombian pro] Camilo [Villegas] and that was great. You know what was pretty cool? I got there the night before and I was coming out, Sergio Garcia came out and said hello. I was pretty surprised and pleased with that. And then next day I was having lunch and they told me Vijay Singh wanted to meet me. Nice, nice guys. That was cool.
Q: What else do you have going on?
JPM: We're going to Cedar Pointe on Thursday.
Q: What's that?
JPM: It's a roller coaster place in Sandusky, Ohio.
Q: I thought you were afraid of heights?
JPM: It's scares the hell out of me, but it's cool.