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Montoya remains an enigma

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

Who is Juan Pablo Montoya?

Is he the driver who charged toward the top of the standings through the first six races of last year's Chase, or the one who faded to an eight-place finish?

Is he the driver who's dominated the last two Brickyard 400s, or the one who gave both away with mistakes on pit road, one of which was absolutely his fault?

Is he a legit championship contender who can compete for a win on any day at any track, or is he a road course ringer?

We know the latter to be true. Both of Montoya's Sprint Cup victories have come on road courses. The first came three seasons ago at Infineon Raceway, the second Sunday at Watkins Glen International. However, the former still remains a question.

Undoubtedly Montoya is the benchmark for drivers who have attempted to make the difficult transition from open-wheel to stock car racing. And unlike Sam Hornish Jr., a champion in the IRL who's still trying to find his way as a NASCAR driver after two-plus seasons, Montoya comes to the track each week to win.

Just looking at the tracks where he's led laps this season demonstrates Montoya's versatility. He's led in 13 of 22 races this season, including Talladega (long, high-banked and fast), Bristol (short and tight), Indianapolis (flat and clunky) and now Watkins Glen, where he ran up front for 74 of 90 laps.

Only five drivers in the Cup Series have led more laps in 2010 than Montoya's 385, and only one (Jimmie Johnson) has led in more races.

But if Montoya is so fast at so many different places, why then does he sit 19th in the standings, well out of Chase contention?

This is the enigma that is Montoya.

Case in point was two weeks ago in the Brickyard 400, a race in which Montoya was the class of the field until a late pit call cost him six spots on the track and a shot at the win. While victory was out of the equation, Montoya could have easily wheeled his car home to a top-five finish. Only he didn't. Instead he got frustrated and wound up wrecking while trying to salvage something that wasn't there.

The wreck cost him about 100 points that day, or about half of what he now trails 12th-place Mark Martin by in the standings.

"There's so many things that you got to learn – I still got to learn," Montoya explained Sunday. "I still make a lot of mistakes personally. … I still am not a hundred percent sure when we make calls what we need to do. It's experience. We just got to learn from it."

Said crew chief Brian Pattie: "I don't think people understand how hard it is. … We've got Indy 500 champions come over and can't succeed. I think Juan is probably the exception to the rule. It's hard. This is the top of the ladder. You can talk F1 as far as worldwide, but as far as competition, I think you're looking at it."

Pattie is correct in calling NASCAR the top of the ladder in terms of competition, and I would add difficulty as well. No other racing series in the world demands such a variety of disciplines as NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. F1 is all about turning left and right. In NASCAR, drivers mostly turn left, but they do so on restrictor-plate tracks, short tracks, intermediate tracks, banked tracks, flat tracks and all sorts of variations in between. And they're asked to be good at it for 400 to 500 miles.

Montoya has yet to win a Cup race on an oval, which has been his biggest criticism. But that goose egg is not because he's not good enough. He is. Skill-wise, Montoya is absolutely one of the five best drivers in NASCAR. No question.

The problem he has is keeping his head about him for an entire race. Sunday, he did so. Despite having Marcos Ambrose beating on his bumper for most of the afternoon, Montoya never panicked, never went in the red and as a result wound up in victory lane by a smooth 4.7 seconds.

"I was just driving 95%," he explained. "A little bit here, a little bit there, making sure I had a car for the end. I was surprised."

Montoya is not going to win a championship this season. But this season could win him one next year. If over the final 14 races of 2010 he can figure out how to finish races – that his 95 percent is better than most others’ 100 percent – he will win on an oval, he will be a contender to win it all in 2011 and he will provide an answer for those of us wondering who the real Juan Pablo Montoya is.

One of the best drivers in the world.

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