INDIANAPOLIS — Juan Pablo Montoya said Friday a crew chief change should not hurt his chances to finally win a NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Team owner Chip Ganassi last week replaced crew chief Brian Pattie with Jim Pohlman, who takes over the No. 42 Chevrolet this weekend on an interim basis. The timing seemed strange to many because Montoya has dominated the last two races at the Brickyard, only to have late mistakes cost him the wins.
But Montoya said it doesn’t matter when a crew chief change is made.
“Everybody says this isn’t a good place to make a change — I think it’s as good as any,” Montoya said. “What do you do? Do you go to a track where you run bad to make it OK (to make the change)? What’s the right place to do it? What’s the wrong place to do it?”
Montoya made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2009, but was a disappointing 17th in points last season. This year has also been a bust — Montoya has just six top-10 finishes through 19 races and is 17th in the standings. He had poor finishes the last two races, at Kentucky where he was confused as to where to line up on a late restart, and at New Hampshire, where he ran out of gas in the final laps.
Although he said his relationship with Pattie was still good, Ganassi called Montoya while he was on vacation last week in his native Colombia to inform the driver he was making the move.
“Chip wanted to make some changes. He wanted to go in a different direction and he asked me. ‘Are you OK that I want to go in a different direction,”’ Montoya said. “I said. ‘Look I race for you and I support you 100 percent.”’
Pohlman takes over during a favorable portion of the schedule for Montoya. He should have won the last two races at Indianapolis, is typically competitive at Pocono and is the defending race winner at Watkins Glen. If Montoya can win even one of the next three races, he could suddenly find himself in contention for one of the two wild card slots in the 12-driver Chase field.
“Everybody is pumped up,” Montoya said. “He’s very open-minded, he really wants to get the job done. But it’s fun, you have somebody so pumped to get the job done and it’s what it takes.”
It’s a critical time for Montoya, who is in the final year of his contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing but is likely to finish the final details on an extension soon. But he’s not making many friends on the track of late, and currently has five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson on the growing list of drivers who are annoyed with Montoya.
The two had an earlier on-track incident at Darlington and after more contact at New Hampshire two weeks ago, Johnson said he was tired of hearing Montoya’s apologies. He reiterated that Friday.
“Juan and I have a friendship, we get along great,” Johnson said. “After three times of me getting turned around, hearing apologies, I’m tired of hearing apologies. I don’t want the contact, I don’t want to be raced that way.”
Montoya, it turns out, did apologize after the Darlington incident.
“I’m in my motorhome showering, he walked into my bus, into my shower, to apologize,” Johnson said. “Then he told me I’m naked. Of course I am, I’m in the shower. “
Montoya indicated he’ll apologize to Johnson for the New Hampshire incident, but it didn’t sound as if he was going to be sincere about it. Montoya said he did apologize to Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus after the race.
“If you really look at it, he had plenty of the race track at the bottom, so do I have apologize after the race? No,” Montoya said. “I think the other time that I hit him, he actually ran into the wall and I decided not to hit the wall and hit him, so it all depends on how you see it. If I see Jimmie I’ll say something. Why? Because you don’t want to have problems with people here tha t you don’t need to.
“It’s to avoid future confrontations. It’s being smart.”
Montoya will need to be smart Sunday if he’s got any chance to add a Brickyard victory to his 2000 Indianapolis 500 win.
He led 202 of 320 laps the last two years, but failed to win either race. He was flagged for speeding on pit road during his final pit stop in 2009 and finished 11th. Last year, he took four tires on the final stop while most of his competitors took two. It mired him back in traffic, and he hit the wall and crashed out to a 32nd place finish.
Montoya said he carries no disappointment from those misses into this weekend.
“We gave ourselves chances. It’s more important to give yourself a chance to win than run 10th every time or 15th every time here,” he said. “So I don’t mind. Like I say, we haven’t taken the trophy home, but we’ve been good.”