Friday, October 9, 2009

JP Montoya - Rodney Dangerfield of Motorsports?

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only person left with any respect and appreciation of talent.

Some people can't seem to stop saying "well he's a factor in The Chase" followed by something to the effect of "but he's got these other five guys who are the favourites."

They keep that little niggle of doubt in the back of their head every time they discuss his chances. I'm by no means saying that he's gonna win the championship either (although I joked that he would be your 2009 Champ with ZERO wins), but if he does, it sure as hell wouldn't surprise me.

People seem to forget this man is a CART title holder, back when CART actually meant something in the 90s. Some of the best racing in the world took place there, and JPM flat out dominated, with seven wins in his rookie season giving him the Championship, after a tie in points with Dario Franchitti, who had three wins. Ganassi then switched to Toyota power for the 2000 season, where engine reliability plagued the team. Despite this, he still led more laps than anyone else on the season and won three more races.

When the IRL decided to allow CART teams to compete in the Indy 500 that year, Jimmy Vasser and JPM were tagged as the "invaders." Many IRL drivers labeled Montoya as "wreckless" and figured he'd crash out of the event. He led 167 of 200 laps to claim the win as an Indy rookie, the first man to do so since Graham Hill in 1966.

It was always the same in Formula One, too. Whether driving for the relative underdog Williams team or McLaren, he always impressed, but was labeled as a hot head. Yes, fine, he was inconsistent, but this is a guy who won The Monaco Grand Prix in a Williams, beating Ferrari and McLaren at their own game. Much like Jacques Villeneuve never got respect, many racing fans never gave JPM the respect he deserved either.

Consider: this is one of only a handful of guys (Coulthard, Hakkinen, Alonso) to take the fight right to Michael Schumacher, often in inferior equipment, and BEAT the guy. In his rookie season for Williams, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, Montoya shocked the world with an audacious, aggressive pass on the German world champ into Turn 1. He then held him off the entire race, before unfortunately being collected in a wreck with a lapped car.

In 2002, a season where Ferrari won 15 of 17 races, Montoya was often the only driver to DIRECTLY compete with Schumacher on track, wheel to wheel, and succeed. Though he didn't win a race that year, he was the "best of the rest". He also set the fastest lap ever recorded in Formula 1 at Monza, 162.949 MPH.

He left Williams on a high note in 2004, winning his final race with them, the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix. He then joined McLaren, where difficulty in learning the car's quirks, and communication issues with the team, gave him poor finishing results. Still, he eventually ironed out the difficulties, winning his first GP for McLaren at Silverstone. Toward the end of the year, he scored three wins, two poles and five podiums in seven starts. This proved that Montoya was not only fast, but able to build on a poor car and make it work. He had a poor season with lots of bad luck and on-track incidents in 2006 and left Formula 1 for NASCAR. Despite his successes, many race fans bid him good riddance from Formula 1.

Which, again is a shame. Since then, he started Nationwide and ARCA races to get accustomed to stockcars, and won his home race in Mexico City in the Nationwide series. The same year started with a win in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He then made the jump full time to the Cup series, where he won (on a fuel mileage gamble that still required him to pass a dozen or so cars to get back to the front) at Sonoma.

His first two seasons were all over the place, but he and crew Chief Brian Pattie persevered, and when 2009 came around, Montoya went about bettering just about every prior finish in his career, finishing consistently in or near the top 10, putting himself solidly in The Chase. Did he race conservative? Did he "points race?" Not if you look at Indy, where he dominated the race, leading the most laps and was on his way to victory when a pit lane speeding penalty ruined the day. Not if you look at his races afterward, with aggressive, fender-to-fender moves at Pocono and Watkins Glen. And did you see him move through the field at Kansas last weekend?

So no, he hasn't won an oval track race yet. But if that was "points racing," the competition should be scared. Since the Chase started, he's the only guy to finish in the top 5 in every race, and he's RIGHT THERE in points. As I jokingly said before, it'd be hilarious to see him win the Championship with no wins, just to prove how dumb the Chase is. But whether he wins or not, he has a legitimate shot.

And while I've never been a huge fan of his, per se, he's grown on me more and more by the day. One of the few personalities left in NASCAR, he speaks his mind, he's aggressive on the track without being stupid, and is just plain exciting to watch. At the same time, he's not an elitist Formula 1 douchebag--he hangs out with fans, he hangs out with his family and friends in the pits, he's likable and sociable, and most importantly, he's humble and realizes he's learning more and more about stockcar racing every day.

And despite what a lot of "haters" like to think, the dude won the Formula 3000 Championship, the CART Championship (and ten CART wins), the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix (and seven Grand Prixs total), took the fight to the "immortal" Michael Schumacher like few ever did, won the 24 Hours of Daytona TWICE, and won as a rookie at the highest level of stockcar racing in North America.

JPM is for real. He may not be the champion this year, but he'll be a contender until he decides to the hang up the helmet, I think.

Oh, and his Juicy Fruit commercial is fuckin' hilarious:

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