One of NASCAR’s Colorful Characters Returns To Open Wheel Racing

JUAN-PABLO-MONTOYA

It is with a wry grin and a tinge of sadness that we learn that Juan Pablo Montoya is leaving NASCAR, signing on with Roger Penske to race Indy cars starting in 2014. He may not have made anyone forget A.J. Foyt (who won seven races and logged 36 top 10s in 128 NASCAR starts), but the colorful Colombian will not soon be forgotten.

How could we forget?

He Said What?- According to Mark Martin- a winner of a combined 96 victories in NASCAR Cup, Nationwide, and truck racing- JPM didn’t much appreciate the way the “Flying Wrinkle” was racing him at the Lifelock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in 2011. “He didn’t like the way I passed him there on the last lap, (called it) borderline stupid driving and suggested I take some smart driving lessons from him,” Martin said. It made Martin mad enough he said he “wouldn’t take no (crap.)” Juan, we love you, but you offering a six-time Cup runner-up driving lessons is a bit like Justin Beiber offering to school Bruce Springsteen on song writing.

Taco Time (He Said What? Part Deaux)- In 2009, Montoya found himself in a controversy, and this time, he didn’t say anything. ESPN was running a live promo during a college football game. Montoya was having a solid season and made the Chase. A screen shot of the top five drivers flashed on the screen, and analyst Chris Speilman lightheartedly asked “Where’s Montoya?” NFL legend and fellow analyst Bob Greise laughed and said “He’s out having a taco.” The mainstream media excoriated the former Miami Dolphin for his “racist” comment. ESPN suspended Greise and he apologized. Montoya? He later said he had never heard of the sportscaster, and had some fun with. A few days later, JPM tweeted “Guess what I’m having for lunch….TACOS!!!….and I’m serious about it!!!”

Dueling Love Taps(Montoya vs. Busch)- One thing the mercurial Montoya will never be accused of is dishonesty. He and Kyle Busch were beating on each other at New Hampshire in 2008, when he flat admitted he hooked the then-points leader. “(Busch) hit me under caution, he hit me under green and I retaliated,” Montoya said. “Did I go a little bit too far retaliating? Yeah. I told them the only reason I did that was I was defending myself.” Busch was surprised by what happened, though he admitted to contact. At the time, Kyle was at the apex of his unpopularity (wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond), but there’s no question Montoya actually WON fans over this scrape.

The 2012 Daytona 500- The one incident Montoya will never shake is when he hit a jet dryer during the 2012 Daytona 500, triggering a barrage of jokes. “How many NASCAR drivers does it take to blow up a jet dryer? Just Juan.” He said he felt a bad vibration, when Montoya felt something give way in his car, and he spun into a Jet Dryer. The jet fuel spilled out onto the track, delaying a race that had already started a day late due to rain.

Rookie Of The Year (2007)- While we’ve had a little fun with some of Montoya’s mishaps, let there be no doubt that of the great open wheel invasion of the last decade, he outlasted his former F1 and Indy Car mates. Just as quickly as they made the scene, such luminaries as Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, and Patrick Carpentier were gone. Montoya had a pretty darn good year in 2007, winning three races in three series: The Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Busch Series race at Mexico City and at Sonoma in the Cup series. He also amassed three top fives and six top tens in Cup competition, good enough to win Rookie of The Year honors. Having made the Chase once, and winning another road course win at Watkins Glen in 2010, Montoya certainly last longer and fared far better than many of his peers.

It may be too easy to laugh off the driver with the diva persona as a punch line. The truth is, that before he started running in NASCAR, Montoya enjoyed success in a variety of racing platforms. His achievements include a Formula 3000 championship, an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2000, a Monaco GP victory in 2003, as well as seven Formula One wins. For all he’s done, he will best be remembered in NASCAR as a witty hard-charger who wouldn’t back down from anyone.

While he’s gone from NASCAR, it’s likely safe to say we haven’t heard the last of Juan Pablo Montoya. Best of luck to you, Juan, and thanks for the memories. NASCAR hadn’t seen anything like you before, and likely never will again.