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Montoya's tough luck is McMurray's gain

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya was holed up in his motorcoach, his battered race car sitting motionless in the garage, when his teammate, Jamie McMurray, took the checkered flag to win the Brickyard 400. And who can blame him?

For the second straight year, Montoya lost a race he should have won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, only this one will sting much more. This time around, he doesn't have NASCAR's speed gun to use as a scapegoat for his undoing. Victory was in his grasp Sunday, and he and his crew chief made a wrong call.

When a caution came out with 22 laps to go, all the leaders headed to pit road. To that point, Montoya had the field covered, just as he did in 2009 when he led 116 of 160 laps before a speeding penalty on pit road, one he still disputes, ended his shot at victory. On Sunday, he'd led 86 of the first 138 laps and had no real challengers, which in a twist of irony may have been what cost him the win.

On that final pit stop, Montoya and Co. went the conservative route, taking four tires. Knowing that they couldn't beat Montoya straight up, a group of trailing drivers took only two, which allowed them to beat Montoya off pit road.

"In 15 or 20 minutes, we'll know if we made the right call," Montoya said over his radio.

It didn't take that long. Five laps after the restart, Montoya, bogged in the kind of heavy traffic he hadn't experienced all day, slammed the wall on the Indianapolis frontstretch, then veered across the track where he was rear-ended by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Despite doing almost everything right – winning the pole, clocking the fastest lap in two of four practice sessions and leading more laps than anyone else – Montoya was once again going home empty handed, this time, though, not because of a speed gun, but because of a decision he and his team made.

"Bad call," Montoya's crew chief Brian Pattie said. "Crew chief error. We should have taken two tires."

In fairness, Pattie made the more calculated call. There were still 22 laps to go when Montoya came down pit road, seemingly plenty of time for him to make up any spots he would lose to those taking only two tires, which wound up being six places.

But just because it's the more calculated call doesn't make it the right one, and on a day when passing a kidney stone might have been easier than passing cars on the race track, taking two tires and the improved track position that came with them proved to be the right move. That's how McMurray got the lead – he went into the pits right behind Montoya but came out first – that's what ultimately allowed him to become just the third driver to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season, and that's how Chip Ganassi became the first team owner ever to win those two races plus the Indianapolis 500 in the same year.

‘‘I thought I had a flat tire on the front, but I knew if we put four tires on, we weren’t going to have a chance to win. I didn’t feel like we could pass the cars we needed to," McMurray explained. "When we came in, we didn’t have a flat. Man, when it is your day, it is your day."

Prior to this season, McMurray had been one of those "underachieving" drivers. He'd won his second ever Cup start back in 2002, but didn't win again for another 165 races. His four-year stint at Roush Fenway Racing produced mediocre results, which made it easy for Jack Roush to unceremoniously let him go at the end of last season, which led to him resigning with Ganassi.

If McMurray's Daytona 500 win earlier this year didn't invalidate Roush's decision, Sunday's win did, because while winning at Daytona is a bigger deal, it's not a better testament to one's overall skills than winning at Indy. This victory, more than the Daytona 500 win, solidifies McMurray as a driver.

"The idiot tonight has got to be Jack Roush," said co-team owner Felix Sebates, known for a biting, honest tongue. "He's the one that let him go."

"Inches away from a clean getaway," quipped Ganassi.

And so was Montoya. Just 22 laps stood between him and Indy immortality, from becoming the first driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400.

Within just a few days after last year's close call, Montoya insisted that he was over it, that he had moved on. It's hard to believe that will be the case this time, especially when his entire season has been a debacle. Oh, he's been good, good enough to win even. He just hasn't.

"What do I say to Juan and Brian?" Ganassi said. "They should have taken two."

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