RICHMOND, Va. -- His car was parked on pit road instead of in Victory Lane, but that didn't stop the members of the No. 42 team from smiling and trading congratulations. Juan Pablo Montoya's bid for his first oval-track win may have been thwarted, but he and his crew were still buoyed by their best finish in more than two years.
"You can't control cautions, man," crew chief Chris Heroy said. "We raced hard, we were competitive, it was a huge step for our team and our organization. It's our first top-five in two years. We put together a complete race. There's no reason to be upset."
And yet, there were plenty of reason to wonder about what might have been had Brian Vickers not hit the wall with five laps remaining Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, turning the Sprint Cup Series event into a green-white-checkered shootout. Montoya led 67consecutive laps and seemed en route to his first oval-track triumph in NASCAR before the yellow flag allowed Kevin Harvick to snatch away the victory.
Montoya and Heroy made the difficult decision to pit before the final restart, giving up the lead but putting on fresh tires along with the bulk of the field. Montoya restarted sixth, but on the outside, where many drivers found it difficult to make up ground. Even so, any disappointment in the No. 42 camp was muted, given that Montoya's eventual fourth-place result was his best since he finished fourth at Martinsville in April of 2011.
"I am happy? Yeah," Montoya said. "? I mean, where's the best finish before this? Look at the last six races. We had fuel pump, gearbox, loose tire, flat tire, loose tire, and something else. So to actually get a finish? Wow."
Montoya, a former Indianapolis 500 champion and Formula One star whose two victories at NASCAR's premier level have both come on road courses, seemed poised for a long-overdue oval-track breakthrough as he held the lead as the event neared its end. When Vickers went into the wall to bring out the caution with five laps remaining, driver and crew chief briefly debated the merits of pitting versus staying out. But it was really no decision at all.
"I don't think we can win staying out," Montoya said over the radio as the cars circled under yellow. "We'll get run over. We want the win, but we also need the points."
Understandably, given that Montoya entered the race 27th in the standings. Three drivers stayed out, leading to a chaotic restart with faster cars on fresher tires further back in the field. Jeff Burton, AJ Allmendinger, and Montoya's Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray restarted in first, second, and third. They finished fifth, 14th, and 26th, respectively, their old rubber no match for the new tires behind them.
"It was easy, man," Heroy said of the decision. "Forty-five-lap scuffs here won't go. They don't go. No brainer. I told the crew to calm down and do it. It's a no-brainer. We passed every car that came and got tires. Only reason we didn't win was because we started on the top and they started on the bottom."
Had the race stayed green, would Montoya have held on? "I would have thought so," he said. He had about a five-car-length lead on Harvick, he said, and knew he could be patient and give up just enough each lap, and still have enough to hold on to win. "We had them covered," said Montoya, who tested at Richmond earlier in the season and qualified sixth.
"When we got the green-white-checkered, we thought, OK, we'll see what happens," Montoya added. "We got screwed; we were on the outside. There's nothing you can do. People with bad tires on the front, people with stickers on the back. It's racing."
Even so, his performance didn't go unnoticed. "Montoya put a beautiful run together at the end. It's a shame he didn't win," said Kurt Busch, whom Montoya passed for the lead on Lap 330 of 400, and finished ninth. Harvick doubted he would have been able to overtake the former open-wheel driver without the aid of the yellow flag.
"I don't think so," the race winner said. "My car had lost drive up off the corner. ? I think I had a better shot to win starting seventh (on the restart). I don't think I was going to catch Montoya, because he had a little bit better drive up off the corner at that point."
Even so, judging from the post-race reaction of the No. 42 team, it was clear they had found a positive in the Virginia capital despite a victory getting away.
Before Richmond, Montoya's best finish of 2013 had been 12th at Phoenix. Since then, there have been plenty of mistakes and missed opportunities. The most tangible glimmer of progress for EGR had been McMurray, who stands a surprising 12th in series points.
Saturday night, Montoya's program at last showed some improvement of its own. "We've been there; we've just been shooting ourselves in the foot," Heroy said. "Loose wheels, fuel cells, and dumb stuff. We don't shoot ourselves in the foot, that's what we can do."
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