Expectations for Montoya rise after endurance win

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – When Juan Pablo Montoya grabbed his first major victory since fleeing Formula One, it solidified just what a special talent the Colombian is.

But the win Sunday by his Chip Ganassi Racing team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona – the most prestigious sports car event in North America – also raised questions about what reasonable expectations there should be on Montoya during his first full season in NASCAR.

Maybe he won’t struggle nearly as much as everyone expects.

Perhaps the switch to stock cars will be fairly seamless.

And maybe, just maybe, Montoya will be pretty darned good.

Slow down just a little bit, car owner Chip Ganassi warned Monday, and don’t start engraving Montoya’s name on the Nextel Cup trophy just yet.

“In terms of his stock-car career, we are still in the bottom of the second inning,” Ganassi said. “That’s just being realistic of where we are at.”

Give Ganassi credit for refusing to get sucked into the Montoya hype, which was ratcheted up after the Rolex win tied Montoya with Mario Andretti as the only drivers to win the Indianapolis 500, a CART title, a Formula One race and the Daytona sports car endurance event.

And as the racing world debated just what this victory actually proves, Ganassi matter-of-factly rebuked any notion that it will translate into a blazing start to the NASCAR season.

“This was a big win, no doubt, a huge feather in his cap,” Ganassi said. “And maybe this shows that he’s a fast learner. But I really don’t think there’s much of a connection between the Rolex and Cup. He’s still learning a new craft and he’s still got a long way to go.”

That tempering of expectations has been limited to the Ganassi camp in the six months since Montoya made the radical decision to leave F1 for NASCAR, which is widely ridiculed in the European racing circles that made Montoya both rich and famous.

After all, going round and round in circles can’t really be that difficult, right? At least that’s the attitude seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher took when asked about Montoya’s move.

“Personally, I wouldn’t do it,” Schumacher told the New York Times. “What do you do in NASCAR? What is exciting there? I can’t see that, running around on ovals.”

If it’s as easy as Schumacher believes, then Montoya should be an instant success. But Montoya has tried to put the brakes on that notion.

“People don’t understand what a big challenge this style of racing is,” he said. “It’s not an easy transition.”

To be successful in the 500, Montoya will have to master the intricacies of restrictor-plate racing, understand the draft and learn the dangerous art of bump-drafting – something only a handful of NASCAR drivers are truly adept at.

Assuming he can figure all of that out, Montoya still must convince his fellow competitors that he has not only grasped it, but that he won’t screw it up over the 500-mile event. If he can’t do that, and no other driver trusts him enough to work with him on the track, then Montoya won’t stand a chance at Daytona.

Jeff Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, smartly tried to gauge Montoya’s skill during preseason practice there earlier this month. Although he thinks Montoya understands it, Gordon said the verdict will be out until Speedweeks.

“Until you get out there with a group of cars and you get into those races, and I don’t care how much you’ve raced around the world or how talented you are, drafting takes experience and laps,” Gordon said. “But I think of any guy who is going to come into this sport and pick it up fast and do it well, I think Juan is at the top of the list.”

So, yes, Montoya’s stock-car skills are still widely untested. But his Rolex win proved that it’s unfair to dismiss him before he’s even had a chance to go bumper-to-bumper with NASCAR’s stars.

After all, this is a guy who within the past few days cemented his name alongside Andretti’s in the history books. And if he can put together a solid NASCAR career, Montoya must be considered one of the greatest drivers of all time because, frankly, stock-car success is the only thing missing from his resume.

Of course, there will always be NASCAR insiders who don’t recognize or understand what Montoya has accomplished throughout his career. And there will always be open-wheel purists who will refuse to acknowledge anything he does in a stock car.

But he’s so far proven to be unafraid of this new challenge, and has seemingly been rejuvenated to be in a series where the racing is more important than the politics – which often hinder F1.

“It’s great to have any kind of win in the first race of the year,” Ganassi said. “What people forget is this sport is still about momentum, and winning does tremendous things for that. So for him to have the momentum of a win like that is hugely positive, and we hope translates into positive things.”

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