Monday, October 26, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Montoya a breath of fresh air for Cup

MARTINSVILLE -- I realize this is three years and 105 races late, but here goes: Welcome to NASCAR, Juan Pablo Montoya.

Please stay as long as possible. There simply aren't enough guys like you around anymore.

Wait -- anymore? What am I talking about? Can a 32-year-old guy make a fogy statement like that? I wasn't around for the good ol' days of this sport, but I've read and heard enough about them to decide they must have been better.

It wouldn't be hard for them to be better. The NASCAR I know is plastic. Most of the drivers are polite and seem like decent guys, but I've seen too many forced smiles turn to frowns when the cameras go dark, heard too many canned quotes escape the lips of competitors, seen too many sponsor-driven antics to believe the sport is much more than another organized money grab.

And then along comes Montoya.

And suddenly, the sport looks ... fun!

Denny Hamlin won Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and Jimmie Johnson finished second to move closer to a fourth straight championship. But Montoya became the best story -- for the way he raced, the way he finished and the way he turned a potentially divisive question into a hearty round of laughter.

Let's start with that last one, because it gives you a pretty good indication of the kind of attitude Montoya has carried with him from Formula One. After finishing third in a heavily dented car, Montoya was asked about comments ESPN college football analyst Bob Griese made -- and later apologized for -- Saturday night.

The back story: When a promo graphic of the top five points leaders appeared on the screen during the football broadcast, one of the other announcers asked: "Where's Juan Pablo Montoya?"

"He's out having a taco," Griese said, laughing.

The Colombian-born Montoya would have had every right to be offended, or at least annoyed. Instead, he sailed right past it.

"Football coach? I don't know who it is. Somebody mentioned it to me. I don't really care, to tell you the truth," Montoya said, without a hint of bitterness coloring his rapid-fire sentences. "Yeah, I don't. I could say I spent the last three hours eating tacos, but I was actually driving a car."

And with that, everybody took a deep breath and laughed. Controversy averted. And not because Montoya pretended to be cool to protect his image or to sell some extra Target gear. It was because he truly didn't give a rip.

It's the same thing he said Friday when he was asked about losing a bunch of points last week in Charlotte, tumbling from third to sixth in the standings: He doesn't care. He's doing the best he can, learning every week, and he leaves the hand-wringing to others.

Besides, the Chase is far from everything. The series championship is obviously important, but for the health of the sport, each individual race needs to be, too. After all, do fans come to see a guy shave 12 points off a points lead? Or do they come to see a show?

The way Montoya races shows you he gets that. Montoya did two things Sunday that I -- and probably many others -- have long wanted to see here: He banged aggressively with Jeff Gordon for position, and he gave Johnson a mid-race challenge at Martinsville Speedway.

Those are the two Hendrick Motorsports stalwarts at this place. Even if you don't beat them, the least you could do is compete with them, make them earn it. Montoya did.

Johnson and Gordon still got their strong finishes, Hamlin still got his win, but the people in the grandstand got more than 10 laps of action.

There is a blunt, goofy, Manny Ramirez-like quality to Montoya, and it's been around for a while. When he came here in the spring of 2007 as a rookie in the Cup Series, he had a poll on his Web site that made me laugh out loud. The question he asked fans was "What do you think of Martinsville Speedway?" There were two choices you could click, and only two.

Choice A: "I hate it." and

Choice B: "It's very nice!"

That's it. Love it or hate it. And that's NASCAR, too.

With more drivers and personalities like Montoya, there'd be a lot more to love.

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