SONOMA, Calif. -- The road course in Northern California's wine country is where Juan Montoya's transition from open-wheel vehicles into NASCAR reached a defining moment. Fans chanted "Co-lom-bia!" and waved flags striped red, yellow and blue after the former Formula One star recorded his first victory at the sport's premier level on the 1.99-mile layout in 2007. This upper corner of the Bay Area suddenly was transformed into a little Bogota.
For a driver who had won on the oval at Indianapolis and on the streets of Monaco, it seemed only the beginning. And although Montoya prevailed at Watkins Glen three years later and perhaps had a pair of Brickyard 400 victories torn from his grasp by mistakes -- one a speeding penalty, the other a pit call -- it's been an uneven stock-car existence for a driver whose Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team once again comes to Sonoma trying to rebuild itself.
Earnhardt Ganassi team
Finish in the standings
* Through 15 races
Driver 2010 2011 2012* Jamie McMurray 14 27 18 Juan Montoya 17 21 19
Chip Ganassi shook up his organization in the offseason, ousting three longtime executives and hiring engineer Chris Heroy away from Hendrick Motorsports to be Montoya's crew chief, all in an attempt to reverse 2011 results that the team co-owner called "pathetic." The going thus far has been slow and hasn't produced much in the way of results -- Montoya currently sits 19th in Sprint Cup points, one spot behind teammate Jamie McMurray. But Sonoma brings an opportunity to make gains, given that Montoya has finished outside the top 10 just once here and that McMurray had one of the best cars last year before being caught up in a wreck.
"I think we both can be pretty good here," Montoya said. If so, it would be a rare outward glimpse of the progress EGR's drivers say is going on behind closed doors, the product of a reorganization aimed at changing a once-feuding team into one that can contend at places beyond Sonoma.
"Last year was frustrating because it was more about arguing than getting things done. I think personally that was the problem," Montoya said. "It was who got more power, who could pull more. It was frustrating as hell. I think once we changed everybody on the team, like right now it's nice to be here. It's really fun to be here. Part of that is we have great sponsors and people that really believe in us and support us. We have really good people that you know they are working their butts off together to give us better race cars every week. Like you go out on a race weekend now and you're like, I think we can run good. The last few weeks we've been going out, and man, we just had a good car. We just have to figure out how we can be better all day. We've just got to put it all together, and we're getting there."
Montoya and McMurray finished 21st and 27th in final points last season. Improvement this year has been modest and spotty -- an eighth-place finish for Montoya last weekend at Michigan, back-to-back top 10s earlier this season for McMurray. But to hear the drivers tell it, the communication level and work environment inside the shop have improved dramatically, things they think eventually will translate into consistently better results down the line.
"It gets better every week," McMurray said. "We made all those changes in the offseason, and I don't think many of us expected to change all those people around and for us to come out and be where we were in 2010. The thing that we had in 2010 that we didn't have last year that we're having again this year is, at some point in each of the races, one of our cars is very fast. At some point, whether it's the beginning, the middle or the end -- we're not able to put the whole thing together -- but one of our cars has been really quick just about everywhere we've been this year, more so I think in the last six or eight weeks. We seem to have the speed. We just have to put it all together."
That 2010 season was a high-water mark for the Earnhardt Ganassi team, a year in which McMurray won three times -- taking prestige events at Daytona, Indianapolis, and Charlotte -- to go along with Montoya's victory at Watkins Glen. But neither made the Chase, something no EGR driver has managed since Montoya broke through and briefly challenged eventual champion Jimmie Johnson in 2009. And last season's collapse was a massive and disappointing slip backward for an organization that thought it was ready to take the next step.
Hence the shakeup, which resonated most within the team's front office and engineering department. The drivers say it already is paying dividends, even if the results aren't obvious on the race track.
"I think we've done a lot of progress. If you really go through the team right now and see how everything's working, it's pretty amazing," Montoya said. "We haven't had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes, and we're putting people in the right places. Putting somebody in the right place doesn't mean overnight you're going to run better. You want to run better overnight, but things have to change. Everyone has to adapt, and it's a process. I really feel that we've made a lot of gains on the car, we've made a lot of gains on how the engineering department is working. We're definitely making progress, I think."
"The way the team is structured, with personnel and engineers and crew chiefs, it's so much better than it was last year," he said. "It's hard for you guys [in the media] to see that when you write your stories, but when you're on the inside, it's a completely different environment than what it was a year ago, and it's all for the better. And Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and more people to make it better than what it is right now. I think for us, my guess is somewhere around the last 10 races is where you're going to see a lot of the progress. It just takes time."
Although a victory Sunday would vault either driver into contention for a Chase wild-card berth, that timeline would seem to make it difficult for Montoya or McMurray to make it into the playoff. Both seem willing to pay the price if it will make them more competitive in the future.
"Part of what makes it so great when you win is the struggles that you fight getting there," McMurray said. "It's frustrating because you want to win. But at the same time, last year was much more frustrating because I felt like we were going in circles. We knew what we needed to work on ... and then [we'd] realize that wasn't it. We would kind of end up 180 from where we needed to be. I said the last 10 races, just because that's kind of how our season is broken down. You race to the Chase, and if you don't make the Chase then it's the last 10 races. I see progress right now, but I think for us to contend to win, we still have a little ways to go. The cars are getting better each week, and ... I kind of say the last 10 races because I think it's going to take that long to get to where we need to be."
Road course etiquette goes out the window
Similar Newsgab Articles: