- John Schwarb
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Chip Ganassi might have never been happier with a third-place finish.
"The biggest challenge for us is introducing Juan's fans to NASCAR. What's really interesting is how many people within the NASCAR community have come to us and said, 'Do you realize how big this is?'"
-- John Olguin, vice president of communications for Ganassi Racing
The prized recruit spent laps in the front, in the back and most places in between in his stock car debut Oct. 6 at Talladega. He took a hit and kept racing, fully recovering on the scoring pylon.
At the end of the day it was just an ARCA race, but for Juan Pablo Montoya, it was as successful a start as he could have had. And that includes the fact that he didn't win.
"He went through the cycle of all the things that could happen in a superspeedway race, which you learn from," Ganassi said. "The fact that he went the whole distance was a huge learning experience, much more than he could have learned if he just led every lap. If you lead every lap, you're not going to learn a darned thing."
Class is officially in session for Montoya, the most celebrated newcomer to NASCAR in years. This is no ordinary hotshot newcomer with talent; Montoya is a driver with seven F1 wins, a CART season championship and an Indianapolis 500 title. Nor is he a native-born American; Montoya is Colombian.
Since the 31-year-old reunited with former boss Ganassi in July (Ganassi owned Montoya's winning CART and Indy cars), wheels have been spinning throughout NASCAR.
President Mike Helton and other league officials see Montoya as their bridge to becoming a truly international sport, capable of expanding a fan base its own research estimates is already 9 percent Hispanic.
"Juan Pablo Montoya's entry into NASCAR is historic," Helton said. "It encompasses all the things that are important to NASCAR, the things that we've worked very hard to establish. To have Juan Pablo say, 'I want to compete here,' is historic."
Wheels have been spinning inside Ganassi Racing, as marketing and public relations officials have only begun to tackle the subsidiary details of handling an international star.
Whereas other teams might have routine meetings to discuss merchandising and other aspects of their drivers' off-track business, Ganassi is holding what it calls a "summit" to sort out all the details of the business of Montoya. Every day is an adventure for the media relations staff, with requests for Montoya's time coming in from around the globe.
"The biggest challenge for us is introducing Juan's fans to NASCAR," said John Olguin, vice president of communications for Ganassi Racing. "What's really interesting is how many people within the NASCAR community have come to us and said, 'Do you realize how big this is?'"
Most important, the wheels have started spinning on the track, where Montoya has been getting the full introduction to the world of stock car racing. And if first impressions mean anything, Montoya figures to be more than just the average rookie next season when he takes on a full Nextel Cup and partial Busch schedule.
"For a guy who's never raced in a 30-car draft, the impression was unbelievable," said Brad Parrott, Montoya's crew chief at Talladega.
On Lap 36 of the Food World 250, another car drifted into Montoya, damaging the right side of the No. 4 Dodge. Two cars went spinning, but Montoya continued ahead with just a bobble, a recovery Parrott said was worthy of "taking the yellow [rookie] stripe off the back bumper."
It took multiple pit stops to get the car back in front-running shape, and for Montoya, it was a welcome change to find out it was possible to recover from such an incident.
"I came to the pits four times to fix it and even after that you go out and you're in the back of a 30-car line and you still can get up front, and that's really, really nice," Montoya said.
Montoya also tested NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow at Talladega, then headed to Memphis for another test run. He also has tested at Iowa and Kentucky in his two-week-old stock car career, inhaling countless tidbits along the way. Parrott and the team prepare 10-item crib sheets for him at every new track, answering questions before Montoya can ask them. And even then he wants to know more, needs to know more.
"In this formula of racing, you're constantly learning. Guys that have been here for many, many years are still learning. That's the trick about NASCAR racing, to be a student of it," Ganassi said. "That's why I'm so excited about Juan. He wants to be here; he's a student of it. He was watching the TV the other day, pulling things off the television that the casual fan doesn't see.
"He's there for the racing. A lot of guys here race to live, he lives to race. It's different."
Whether Montoya can make a difference in the bottom line at Ganassi is the next question. If preparations continue as planned, he'll make his Nextel Cup debut Nov. 19 in the season finale at Homestead-Miami before embarking on the full schedule next year. He'll be unquestionably the star of the 2007 rookie class, but will Montoya be a winning one?
"The driver's not the only thing; we have to put a winning team around him. We haven't won in three years," Parrott said. "I'm going to say that's going to be hard, since we haven't won. Do I expect to win? Yes, that's what we're shooting for."
"It's a great challenge for my career," Montoya said before his first stock car lap. "Coming here is probably going to be my toughest challenge ever. To come here and be part of it and learn is going to be exciting."
The learning is just beginning.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Juan Pablo Montoya didn't win his first stock car race, but the Colombian-born superstar showed he has the stuff to do more than draw fans, writes John Schwarb.