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Juan Pablo Montoya is finally starting to 'get it.' Maybe a few lessons from Jeff Gordon and he'll have it down pat

  Juan Pablo: On the verge of a major NASCAR breakthrough...but he needs to win something, and soon. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Carl Edwards is doing PR backflips into the Miami Beach waters.
   Kyle Busch and Joey Logano – don't laugh -- are doing PR smackdown stuff for the World Wrestling Entertainment's Monday Night Raw in snowy Buffalo, N.Y.
    Jimmie Johnson is hosting a golf tournament in San Diego.
    Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, who knows where these guys are.
    Well, maybe some of them are out in the backwoods hunting, but a lot of them doing heavy-duty PR for NASCAR.
   And all these guys are Twittering too.   
   One thing about this sport – there is heavy-duty promotion every which way you look.
   They haven't loaded a driver into a circus canon and shot him across the start-finish line, yet. But just about anything else goes.
   So, uh, ah, er, what about the TV ratings?
   Can't blame the economy for NASCAR's lousy TV rating.
   Yes, the sluggish economy may be a big reason for weak crowds, but Couch Potato Nation isn't watching NASCAR. It's watching a lot of stuff, but not NASCAR.
   So is it time for Car-of-Tomorrow II?
   It's time for some reassessment here.
   Obviously this particular championship system isn't working all that well, at least in terms of boosting TV ratings against the NFL or MLB. And Jimmie and the Rick Hendrick bunch certainly has figured out how to beat the system.
   Until last weekend it looked like Juan Pablo Montoya was the last hope of someone rising to the occasion and matching the Hendrick juggernaut.
    Now Montoya is 195 points down, and all but out of the title hunt, unless all five men ahead of him in the standings have considerable misfortune.
    Montoya is a strange bird. Indianapolis, yes. Formula One, Monte Carlo, yes. Now NASCAR. And certainly he's having a lot more fun here in NASCAR than he did in F1.
    However sometimes it seems like he's just been happy to be here, racing with buddies, instead of feuding with rivals….and it's not been all that clear just where his edge was. Or if he even played with much of an edge here. Then again, as much talent as he has, maybe he doesn't need a sharp edge.
    But now, suddenly six weeks ago he found himself in the championship playoffs. He'd worked hard all season, carefully positioning himself to make the chase. But then once he made the hunt, it was like the dog that finally caught the car – what to do with it?
    And sometimes it's seemed like Montoya doesn't really have a good understanding of just what he can mean to this sport.
    Montoya is bigger than just another racer, bigger than just another stock car racer. He has a presence that – well, after playing in all those international venues with all those F1 prima donnas and politicos, maybe this is like going back to high school and just hanging out.
    And this goes beyond just the prospect of his possibly winning the NASCAR championship, and all that would do for the sport.
   In one sense it's good that Montoya isn't taking himself too seriously. After all this is just stock car racing, just NASCAR, just Sunday fun.

  Jeff Gordon: NASCAR's consumate spokesman (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  But in listening to Jeff Gordon – perhaps the most articulate man in the sport today, a man remarkably attuned to the nuances of perception (and Gordon's performance here Friday was another gem, another classic, one that too many in the media take for granted) – and then listening moments later to Montoya….well, if Montoya might be well served to go hang out with Gordon for a while and soak up the ambience.
   This sport, after all, is not just about turning fast laps and making thrilling moves and signing autographs – it's about relating to the fans, and helping the fans relate to you.
   Montoya is on the verge of that, right on the verge. It started sometime over the summer, when the change in his attitude became noticeable. He's starting to 'get it.'
   And 'it' is a fine art, to be sure. Half the guys in the field here still don't have a clue, and that's after years of doing this.
   Montoya is oh so close to really understanding this sport and the big picture…..
   But he's not there yet.
   Of course at the moment he's still reeling after last Sunday's deflating 35th.  Coming to Charlotte last weekend Montoya had ripped off four straight top-four runs in the playoffs (and he'd opened September with a sparkling third at Atlanta).
   So he's a bit down, granted.
   But let's try, just the same:
   JPM, you're good at sizing up rivals, from F1, and you've learned how to find their weak points, and how to exploit those. So, considering Jimmie Johnson's runaway in the title chase, how would you rattle Johnson's cage and get him off his game, enough to make a run for the title?
    "I don’t really care," Montoya says with a shrug. "You've got to worry about what you're doing -- not what everybody else is doing.
    "As long as you keep worrying about what he's doing, you're not doing your job properly."
   At this point of the season, much of the game is mental, when you're going for a championship. You've got to work on the head as well as the body.
    Montoya still won't bite: "You can go out and win the next six races and you will rattle anybody. Otherwise what's the point?


   Juan Pablo Montoya's title bid this season may be all but over, but he's built a solid foundation for a great NASCAR career (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


"For us, after our bad week last week, we're going to have fun….we're going to run harder and see what happens," Montoya says.
    About Johnson? "I wouldn’t really care."
    Sometimes Montoya's international nonchalance doesn't come across the right way here in the NASCAR garage.
   Give me the screaming Montoya at Indianapolis, the irate Montoya, arguing emotionally about what could easily have been a good no-call by NASCAR.
    Give me the emotion.
    Johnson gives us enough cool.
    Give us the Greg Biffle brushback.
    Give us a good squeeze play.
    And, hey, that charge up the middle, four-wide, a few weeks ago, that was truly amazing. This guy on the track can do marvelous things with one of these cars.
   Now if he can just talk the talk as well as he can walk the walk…
   Well, maybe he's depressed: "We made the chase, and we've been competitive. We just had a bad week.
   "You've got to look at the positives -- And the positives were (at Charlotte) we probably had the second-fastest car last week. Denny Hamlin had a faster car than us. Apart from that, nobody had a faster car."
     But Montoya got jammed up between Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin on one of those restarts, and that killed his rear fender and cut a tire, and cost him several laps….and a shot at the championship.
   It is a failure of NASCAR's points system that one mistake can doom a title bid, without the chance to make a redeeming 'home run' and get back in the game.
    "What can you do? We lost a ton of points. You move on," Montoya says simply.
    "Anything we do (from here on till Homestead) is a bonus.
    "It's all about learning. Was it our fault? (at Charlotte) No. Was it anybody's fault? I don't think so. Was Mark Martin at fault because he ran into the back of me? No. We all checked up, and he didn't slow down fast enough.
    "It's part of racing. I'm good with it. It could happen to anybody.
    "You guys with the media always look at what happened last week and what's going on this week. I look at the bigger picture. I look at what's going to happen two years down the road.
    "You've got to look at two years down the road: where we are, what we've achieved, why we missed. So we know next time when it comes down to it, 'make sure you don't get on the gas (on a slow restart like at Charlotte), make sure nobody gets on the gas.'"


Juan Pablo Montoya with son Sebastian (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

In a sense Montoya's cool is cool. He's like Jimmie Johnson in that respect. Rarely rattled. Quick to recover.
    But he could take some lessons from Gordon on the care and feeding of the media. Maybe, after F1 media, that rapacious bunch, he's just happy to be here, hanging with his buds in the motorcoach lot….and letting the rest of the world in vicariously through his non-stop Twitters.
    Montoya's goals from here till Thanksgiving? "Have fun, run hard…make sure everybody sees that car running hard and up front….and see what happens.
     "If we can win some races, that would be awesome. We're way overdue.
    "But as I say that, it could take a year before I win a freaking race."
    Doubt that. In fact, might be a good moment to put some money down on Juan Pablo Montoya winning at Homestead….right down the road from his Miami home.
    "A fast car always makes your life easy," Montoya says with a grin. "Honestly, having good race cars, it makes your life so much easier.
    "And right now we're building such a good race cars it's making me look really good. So I don't mind."
    Maybe Montoya's right. Maybe this is really all about trying to have a little bit of fun in life.

   JPM: NASCAR could use that international connection Montoya can provide, and Curtis Gray's people at Homestead-Miami are certainly milking that for all they can....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

JPM: It's not MY fault!

Some good points Mike. Maybe JPM should take a step back and look into the mirror before these next 5 races. His image, the way he is perceived by the fans, and by the other drivers could change quite a bit if he doesn't "get it" soon enough. He's got the talent, they have a real good team, and they're building fast cars. They have everything in place to run up front every week. But he's also on the verge of morphing into the next Kyle Busch type bad boy, if that hasn't already begun.

I think he should take your advice and hang out with Gordo for the rest of the year.

What's wrong with being the bad guy?

I agree that JPM needs to work on his media game. Hanging out with Gordon would be a good idea in that respect, but maybe hanging out with Stewart would be a better idea. What's wrong with having a good ol' fashioned emotional racer: one that takes risks and isn't afraid to wrinkle a few fenders on his way to Victory Lane? NASCAR needs more personality. We need more Kyle Buschs and Greg Biffles. Remember Earnhardt? People hated him. People loved him. They either wanted to see him win or they wanted to see him get beat by their driver (maybe they just wanted to see him wreck), but they wanted to see him. People filled the stands and tuned in from home to see the drama around the personality. Today's NASCAR has neither drama nor personality. Some of that is due to crappy racing with lousy cars. Some is due to NASCAR driving personality out of the sport (Harvick, Stewart, Ky. Busch, Ku. Busch, Biffle have all be silenced by NASCAR). Montoya needs to learn how to express his passion and emotion to the media. Let him do that, but don't suppress it until his personality becomes as bland as every other driver.

Yessireee! I relish the

Yessireee! I relish the prospect of JPM painting his car black, putting that bull's eye on it, and taking the game right to these guys. I asked several of these title challengers the other day about 'rattling' Jimmie's cage (not wrecking him, of course, but getting meaner) and they looked at me like I had two heads. What's wrong with these guys? Racing was a lot more fun when Earnhardt had that black 3 on the track. And you're right about NASCAR silencing the drivers....and the TV commentators too, according to my sources, who say that some of those TV guys, who have been pointing out the obvious -- smaller crowds and poor TV ratings -- have been getting a talking to from NASCAR. Let's all break out the pom-poms and everything will magically get better.
Billy Jr. wouldn't tolerate some of the stuff that's going on right now.

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