LAS VEGAS (AP) — The honeymoon is apparently over for Jamie McMurray, who celebrated his reunion with team owner Chip Ganassi with a career-changing Daytona 500 victory.
A mere three weeks later, he’s at the center of a team controversy following a wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The two were running ninth and 10th midway through Sunday’s race when McMurray lost control of his car and ran into his teammate.
Montoya minced no words in expressing his displeasure, erupting on his team radio in words not fit for print. The emotional Colombian had calmed very little by the time he limped his car to the garage and met with media.
“I’m sure on the radio it was ‘Ah, I didn’t mean that,'” Montoya mocked in a high-pitched tone. “He is just trying to prove to people he can drive a race car and I guess he isn’t doing too many favors on this team.”
The criticism continued hours after Montoya’s 37th-place finish when his wife, Connie, went to Twitter and weighed in with a Spanish post that, roughly translated, said the McDonald’s clown must have been driving McMurray’s car on Sunday. The dig was a reference to the McDonald’s sponsorship McMurray debuted at Las Vegas because the deal closed after his Daytona 500 victory.
These are the type of feuds that can tear a race team apart. Although teammates have hated each other in the past and still found a way to be successful, it’s difficult in today’s NASCAR and even harder for a smaller team such as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
But as angry as Montoya may be with McMurray, this will likely blow over fairly quickly.
Why? Because the drivers don’t have to be best friends, or even like each other, for EGR to succeed. The only thing that’s important is that they focus on the organization, which everyone seems determined to do going forward.
EGR made monstrous strides last season when crew chief Brian Pattie guided Montoya to the team’s first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, overcoming early organizational issues to claim one of the coveted 12 spots. A merger between Ganassi and Dale Earnhardt Inc. had the two teams essentially operating individually for several months last season, but Montoya was able to succeed despite the handicap.
Those roadblocks were eventually overcome, and EGR had a true two-car team by the time last season ended. The unity has been evident with strong cars in all three races this year, plus McMurray’s season-opening win.
The trick for Ganassi now, though, is to soothe egos and hurt feelings before Sunday’s incident takes the team back two steps.
The team owner didn’t seem concerned Monday.
“Obviously two teammates would not try to or want to tack each other out,” said Ganassi, adding he thought Montoya “will be calmer today.”
McMurray, who accepted blame and apologized publicly after the race, also downplayed any friction on Monday and said too much was being made of the situation.
“I spoke with him last night, and everything is fine,” he said.
Still, “fine” is a relative term, and, until coming to NASCAR, Montoya has never really been “fine” with his teammates. That’s not really how it works in Formula One, where the team dynamics are so cutthroat that teammates are often the most bitter of rivals.
Montoya had seemed to soften since his 2006 move to NASCAR, where he became close with then-teammates David Stremme and Dario Franchitti.
Franchitti had known Montoya for years through various open-wheel series in the U.S. and abroad, knew of his hot-tempered ways, and was friends with many drivers who had done stints as Montoya’s teammate.
So when Franchitti came to NASCAR, he spoke to Jimmy Vasser, who teamed with Montoya in CART, and had no qualms about working with him after that conversation.
“I knew it was not true that Juan can’t be a good teammate because Jimmy told me so,” Franchitti once said.
If the friction hasn’t blown over by this weekend’s race at Atlanta, it won’t necessarily mean that EGR will have a drama-packed weekend. If McMurray and Montoya never go to dinner together or watch movies at the track, it won’t matter so long as the tension stays separate from the actual teams — something Pattie seemed convinced Monday will not be a difficult task.
“I’d say this is something between the drivers and has no effect at all on any of us on the shop floor,” Pattie said. “The teams work really good together, and we won’t let that change.”
But what about Montoya’s harsh remarks, which Pattie tried in vain to curb as the driver ranted on the team radio?
“People gotta understand that when you wreck good race cars, that’s bad,” said Pattie, “when it happens with a teammate, well, that’s worse.”
Pattie speaks from experience, too. After all, he was Scott Pruett’s crew chief back in 2007 when Montoya wrecked his teammate to win the Nationwide Series race at Mexico City. It was Pattie and Pruett who had the harsh words that day, and although tension lingered for a bit, everyone eventually moved on.
“This is something that can go away with one conversation between Chip and the drivers,” Pattie said.