By Jenna Fryer Associated Press
SONOMA, Calif. — The pressure was on Juan Pablo Montoya last year when he arrived at Infineon Raceway expected to score his first Cup Series victory.
The road-racing ace delivered, winning when he was able to stretch the gas in his No. 42 Dodge all the way to the finish line. Now he’s back, without the target, and a much different attitude.
“There’s no pressure at all,” Montoya said. “It’s a great race to win, but it’s sort of like ‘Been there, done that.’ I don’t need to win to prove anything.”
So Montoya is totally at ease heading into Sunday’s race — he has used his time in California to play a round at the exclusive Sonoma Country Club, shop with wife Connie and enjoy local fare with friends his family.
His crew chief, meanwhile, could barely sleep.
Montoya might not be feeling the pressure, but Brian Pattie most definitely was.
“There’s a lot of pressure. A ton,” Pattie said before practice Friday. “But that’s because I want to win a Cup race.”
And if there was anywhere that the struggling Chip Ganassi Racing team can do it, it’s on a road course.
The team has three road racing veterans running this weekend in Montoya, former IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti and former Grand-Am Series champion Scott Pruett. Although Franchitti struggled through his first practice around the 10-turn, 1.999-mile course, all three could conceivably challenge for the victory.
But it’s Montoya that everyone looks to lead the charge, and Pattie is responsible for giving him a car capable of winning. The two have only been together a month, as Pattie took over the No. 42 crew in late May in the third crew chief change this season for Montoya.
Their four races together have been a frustrating cycle of one step forward, one step back with crashes in Charlotte and Pocono, a 12th-place finish at Dover and then a miserable 38th-place showing last week in Michigan.
Despite the results, the duo has finally settled in with each other and are moving forward committed to turning the team around.
“He is who he is, and as long as you know that and accept that, you are fine,” Pattie said of the passionate Colombian driver.
Now they’ve turned their attention to Sonoma, where Pattie brought a brand new car and last year’s notes to give Montoya a chance to win. Because he won on fuel mileage strategy, Montoya isn’t shy about admitting he didn’t have the best car here last year.
It’s a sentiment shared in the garage, as some are naming veterans Jeff Gordon (nine career road course wins) and Tony Stewart (six) more credible favorites to win Sunday.
“Everyone said what a great job he did last year, but he had a 15th-place car last year and just happen to get better fuel mileage than everybody else,” said two-time road course winner Robby Gordon. “I don’t even look at him as being a threat as much as I do with Jeff or Tony.”
Pattie disagrees, knowing that his years racing road courses in CART and Formula One give Montoya an edge few drivers can duplicate.
“He’s got a reputation. An intimidation factor,” Pattie said. “If you see the 42 coming on your bumper at a road course, I promise you know who it is and how he’s going to race.”
And Montoya won’t be bothered by statement’s like Gordon’s. His credentials are intact: Seven F1 victories, NASCAR wins on the road courses at Sonoma and Mexico City (Nationwide Series) and a pair of victories in the prestigious 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.
“A year later or two years later, the only thing anyone will remember is who won the race,” he said. “Not how they won the race.”
So Montoya heads into Sunday seeking his second career Cup win, but more importantly, a strong finish that can give him a push in the points. He peaked at 12th in the standings in mid-May, but has slumped to 22nd.
“If I had a chance of winning, I want to take it,” he said. “But at the same time, the last few races, we’ve struggled. If I take a third against a 20th place, it’s an extra 100 points. You might take that third place and get the points and go home happy, but there’s always a little chip in your head that says, ‘OK, go for it.’”