You could see it in Juan Pablo Montoya's face in between practice sessions last weekend at Dover International Speedway. The vibe was unmistakable. He was smiling, joking, giving regular race updates to his passionate international collection of 700,000 Twitter followers.
After struggling to post a top-20 finish in the opening three months of the season, he showed up in Dover coming off two top-10s in the previous four races. Montoya was feeling it: promise and expectation.
And the positive karma paid off a day later when Montoya nearly scored his first win in three years -- his runner-up finish to Tony Stewart at the Monster Mile was his best finish since a third place at Las Vegas in 2011 and the best ever for the open-wheel champion on an oval.
Except, the always colorful Colombian is the first to tell you, positive karma didn't contribute to the change in fortune as much as better pit stops, better cars and a little less misfortune.
"Today we gave ourselves a good chance (to win),'' Montoya said during a post-race news conference, minutes after his No. 42 Energizer/Target Chevy crossed the finish line seven tenths of a second behind Stewart.
It sounded like such a simple explanation, but it goes to the heart of the situation for Montoya, 37, who endured an essentially non-competitive 2012 season when he scored only two top-10 finishes and ranked a lowly 22nd in the final points standings.
Completely committed to a new start, Montoya was hopeful that the introduction of NASCAR's new Gen-6 car might even the playing field or at least help get his team back on track. To a driver of that caliber and team of that standing, last year was unacceptable.
Instead, Montoya can list this season's race snafus as quickly as he can rattle off his children's names.
"We've had the gearbox failures, fuel pump failure, part of the ECU, three loose tires, a flat tire, got wrecked in Talladega,'' Montoya said his voice trailing off.
"It gets to the point, where you're like, 'what's next?' ''
"We have the speed, we've just been having all kinds of failures in the cars. And as a team we made a lot of mistakes, especially under green. Some races we were running 12th or 14th and they made mistakes (on pit road) and we're two laps down and finish 30th.
"We tried to change people and it didn't work and went back to the same people at Richmond and they did spectacular. They realized what we told them. You've got to execute and do our thing.''
The runner-up finish proved what a good day on pit road, no parts failures and inspired driving can do. Montoya's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team boasted the fourth-best performance in the pits ? only Greg Biffle, reigning champ Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch spent less time on Dover's pit road Sunday.
"As a team we've made a lot of mistakes and I say, we, because I'm part of it. I probably will do something wrong at some point, we do as drivers. I tried not to blame anybody, not say, 'oh this guy screwed up.'
"It's us as a team. We've made mistakes and we dug ourselves in a hole. We have the speed to get out of the hole, no problem. We've just been unlucky
"Yesterday,'' Montoya explained, "we sucked in practice and qualifying and we were 21st. We couldn't run 21st last year. Seriously.''
"And it's hard because we're 20-somthing in points, but outrun people that are in the top 10 in points. I think we've just put ourselves in bad situations.
"If you're on the outside and you just look at the numbers, the numbers suck,'' Montoya said. "But spend a little time looking at where we've been running and the things that have happened to us, then you'll be like, 'oh.' "
To that point, Montoya used the May 25 Charlotte 600-miler as an example. He got caught up in an accident with five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, who between them have five wins in the first 13 races.
"If you're going to wreck with somebody. ?,'' Montoya said shaking his head and smiling slightly, "If those guys make a mistake and wreck you. ? you're running in the top 10.''
The current run Montoya is enjoying has moved him up to 22nd in the standings, 16 points behind 20th-place Ryan Newman. Montoya's most practical path to join the 12-drive Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff run at this point is to vie for one of the two wild-card positions. To earn that, he must be ranked among the top 20 and have more wins than other driver not in the top 10.
Sunday's winner Stewart went to great lengths to remind reporters after the race that Montoya is an Indy 500 and Formula One champion racer before coming to NASCAR seven years ago.
"Montoya didn't forget how to drive a race car,'' Stewart said, before adding with a smile on his face that he (also a former open-wheel champ) enjoyed the opportunity to race door-to-door with Montoya for a win.
Montoya, of course, would like that opportunity more often as well and is encouraged by the upcoming schedule. He won the pole position the last time the Cup series raced at this week's venue, Pocono Raceway.
"Pocono is good for us, Michigan is good for us, Indy and of course the road courses, there's a lot of good places coming up for us,'' Montoya said. "We just have to make sure the weekends that we can't win, we're still there, give ourselves the best shot, you're not 20th.
"It's just keeping together. People have to see I'm committed to it and that have to see that I care. It doesn't matter whether they make a mistake or not I will give 100 percent.
"I always do."
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