Montoya quit a McLaren F1 seat to turn his world on its head.
2007: Early Promise
Montoya’s time in NASCAR might be remembered as seven years of mediocrity, but he showed much promise when he started out. Contesting select Busch Series races as well as the Nextel Cup, he won his first second-tier race at only the seventh attempt, in Mexico City. At mid-season he won his first Cup race at Sears Point, after starting 32nd, and America took note.
He was named Rookie of the Year and it seemed only a matter of time before the one-time Indy 500 winner figured out those ovals.
2009: Making the Chase
Ganassi merged with Earnhardt at the start of 2009, switching from Dodge to Chevy, and Montoya was instantly more competitive. When it came to the cut-off he lay eighth in the standings, making him the first and so far only Ganassi driver to make the Chase for the Cup. He’d scored no wins, but 12 top-10 finishes were enough. He followed it up with pole in New Hampshire and five top-five finishes. After a good run he sat third in the standings, behind Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, but with no victories he eventually slipped back to eighth.
2010: Victory at the Glen
“Last year,” Montoya said at the time, “we were so hung up on making the Chase that it was all about numbers, it wasn’t about being fast or slow… That freaking win would never come, so it was getting frustrating.” He and Ganassi put that right when NASCAR got to New York. After qualifying third, Montoya engaged in an electrifying duel with former Aussie V8 star Marcos Ambrose, coming out on top after 90 laps at the limit. “He wasn’t giving me anything,” Ambrose said after the race, “I just wore out everything trying to pass him.” Michael Schumacher might recall such feelings.
2008: Sophomore Slump
Montoya opened the year with his second Daytona 24 Hours win, but it would be the last time he looked down from a podium that season. Failing spectacularly to build on the promise of 2007, Montoya and Ganassi slipped down the standings. He took a lucky second at Talladega, but only troubled the top 10 twice more and ended the season with an average finishing position of 24th. Still, at least it wasn’t F1. At the end of the season Toro Rosso made overtures, but these were rebuffed. NASCAR’s laid-back climes suited his off-track temperament.
2011: Ryan Newman feud
Montoya might have been perceived as a highly strung former F1 driver by some, but he was more robust than that. He even joked (or did he?) about a “little black book” of drivers that needed to be set straight. During 2011 Montoya engaged in an almighty feud with Stewart-Haas driver Ryan Newman, stemming from the former’s first top-tier race, which ended in a fireball courtesy of the latter. After a ‘mediation’ session in the NASCAR hauler – following multiple wrecks – Montoya allegedly claimed that Newman “hits like a girl”…
2012: Date with a jet dryer
If there’s one incident people will remember about Montoya’s time in NASCAR, it’ll be this. At Daytona he pitted under yellows and was catching the pack. As he came upon two jet dryers, his suspension broke and sent him careering into one of them. The jet’s fuel tank ruptured and, as another car drove over the slick, a spark ignited the lot. One huge explosion later, a shocked, embarrassed and confused Montoya was led to the medical centre. It was symbolic of his seven years in NASCAR: even when he was doing everything right, things could still go spectacularly wrong.