Although he has been most well known for fireworks off the track in incidents with other drivers, and for a firey crash at Daytona to start the year, Montoya has been pretty quiet so far this year. Not having won a pole since Richmond in April of 2011, he surprised even himself with the pole in Pocono for the Pennsylvania 400. With his last win in NASCAR coming at a road course, Watkins Glen in 2008, Montoya has been working to achieve more consistant results, and being patient for that next win, or any win on an oval, to show that he is more than just an aggressive road course driver.
“We know we’re working in the right direction, we know we’re working hard, we feel the cars are getting a little better,” Montoya said, “but to go out there and get a pole … I just went through the hauler and all the engineers, they’re all happy and laughing. I’m used to long faces, a lot of long faces, a lot of stressful faces. We needed something like this as a company. This is big for us.”
“I think we’re quite a ways away from as a company where we want to get to,” he said. “We want to be able to come every weekend knowing you can beat a Hendrick, beat a Gibbs. That’s our goal.”
Montoya knows he was as unlikely as any driver to win the pole.
“If you told me this morning I was going to be sitting on the pole, I’d say, `pfff,'” he said. “I thought we were going to be OK. I thought we’d be 12-15. And we’re sitting on the pole.”
“I know tomorrow is going to be a reality check,” Montoya said. “I’m really open-minded about tomorrow. But let’s enjoy today.”
Following on of his most consistent season of his career so far, Dale Earnhardt Jr is atop the leader board this weekend after taking the points lead at the Brickyard. Running well for the entire race, his points position drastically improved when a late race incident with the 17 of Matt Kenseth ended with a 36 place finish, while Jr. finished in 4th allowing for a 32 point gain and the top of the board.
“I think a lot of people downplay it,” Earnhardt said of being the points leader. “I think it means the same to the other drivers, probably, but they downplay it obviously because the guys that are saying that may find themselves in the points lead or battling for it more often than I have been. It’s been a long time since I was in the points lead. It’s been forever — I can’t even recall the last time we were in the conversation for the championship. These things are really validating the effort and the work we’ve done.”
After dealing with the pressure of a long drought, Jr finally got the monkey off his back in the June race in Michigan, and he has been showing even more confidence each week since then. His relationship with Steve Letarte has been under constant watch by the fans who were unsure that it would bring results, but moving forward, Jr has been more consistent than at any other point in his career.
“We worked hard, and we found some speed,” he said. “We’ve been having those type of deals all year long where we’re working hard, and there are some gains that are made. I’ve worked my tail off most of my career for little gains — or, at times, no gains. So this year it’s been awesome to go to the race track on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and work with Steve, and come away really happy with what happened. … The points lead is sort of the symbolic piece to all that effort. The points lead recognizes all that hard work, for me.”
Knowing that the points lead with shuffle when the chase begins a mere 6 races after this weekend, Jr knows he needs to get at least one more win to take some pressure off his championship hopes for this year.
“We’re running well, but we need to win more races. We need to show up and be the fastest car more often,” he said. “We’ve been quick, but in my opinion we’ve been the fastest guy only once or twice this year, and I don’t know if that’s good enough. I’m going to say it’s not good enough. I know our team would like to win more races, and to be able to contend for the championship, our team needs another 10-15 percent.”
Finally, after weeks of drama, A.J. Allmendinger was released from Penske racing earlier in the week. After failing a random drug test administered by NASCAR, and having his B-test fail as well, Allmendinger has entered the road to recovery program provided by NASCAR in hopes of returning to the track as soon as possible. After his apology to fans and to his sponsors, Roger Penske released him form his contract and has put Sam Hornish Jr in the number 22 for the forseeable future.
“Penske Racing fully supports NASCAR’s substance abuse policy, and we are disappointed with AJ’s positive drug test results,” Roger Penske said. “AJ is a terrific driver, a good person and it is very unfortunate that we have to separate at this time. We have invested greatly in AJ and we were confident in his success with our team. The decision to dismiss him is consistent with how we would treat any other Penske Racing team member under similar circumstances. As AJ begins NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, we wish him the best and look forward to seeing him compete again in NASCAR.”
A.J. himself made a statement that echo’s the sentiment of his former team.
“Effective today, I have been released from Penske Racing as driver of the No. 22 Dodge Charger,” Allmendinger said in a statement. “I wish to thank Mr. Penske, Penske Racing, their sponsors, and especially all the of the No. 22 team for the opportunity they provided me and for their support in this difficult time. I also, again, would like to thank all the fans that really have been awesome through this. I apologize for the distraction, embarrassment, and difficulties that my current suspension from NASCAR has provided. As I stated last week, I have begun NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program and look forward to using those resources and its completion to compete again in NASCAR in the near future.”
It is going to be interesting to see if Allmendinger is able to return to NASCAR. While everyone likes a comback story, in this sponsor driven world where image is everything, it may be hard for A.J. to find a ride of the caliber of the one he just lost, which was also the best of his career so far.