Juan Pablo Montoya never meant for his move from Formula One to NASCAR to be the one that made devout open-wheelers accepting of stock cars. But in the 15 months since he made the switch, the list of followers has grown.
Now Montoya has a warning for those considering NASCAR: It’s a lot harder than it looks.
“This is not easy,” Montoya said. “I think the person who thinks that it is easy should look again, because I think this is pretty hard. And now, with the full fields, even getting into the race is very, very hard.”
Montoya has paid attention to the plight of Sam Hornish, who is debating whether or not to leave the IndyCar Series for NASCAR. A three-time series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, Hornish has accomplished everything he set out to do in open-wheel and is craving a new challenge.
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But he’s gotten more than he ever bargained for in NASCAR, which has been nothing short of an incredible struggle.
Hornish has failed to qualify for the four Nextel Cup races he’s entered, and has been just OK in eight Busch Series races, with a 15th-place finish at Atlanta earlier this season his best showing. Montoya said he watched Hornish’s qualifying lap at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last week, and instantly recognized that Hornish has yet to adapt to differences in the cars.
“When Sam went into Turn 1, I knew right then he wasn’t going to make the race,” Montoya said. “He never arced the corner. He was just like an open-wheeler and went straight to the bottom, and he just came out going high out of the corner. With these cars, you have to arc them and work a little more.
“I knew as soon as we got to the track that he was in trouble because you don’t hear about him testing here and testing there. That is one of the fastest mile-and-a-halfs we go to, and you have to get after it, and it’s not easy. If he doesn’t test, it’s going to take him longer to figure this out.”
Since Montoya’s move to NASCAR last summer, drivers have watched his progress and flirted with the series. Hornish joined him in Busch races at the end of last season, and hopes to decide soon if he’ll race full-time in the Nextel Cup Series next year.
Already signed up for a full Cup schedule is former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve and reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, who will be Montoya’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing. Scott Speed, who spent almost two years in F1 before he lost his ride this summer, plans to run a full ARCA schedule next year to prepare for NASCAR.
But for now, Montoya is curious to see what Hornish will do.
“Right now, I would think he’s thinking about bailing (on NASCAR),” Montoya said. “But he’s just got to be patient. I asked him why he wasn’t running Busch, and he said his team doesn’t have enough people. If they want him next year here, he should be running as many races as he can right now. He needs seat time and he needs miles.”
Montoya’s Q&A with the AP's Jenna Fryer:
Q: What does it take to get the hang of NASCAR?
JPM: You just need to get in the car as much as possible. Last year we wanted to run (the season finale) at Homestead, and I think I was the last car to qualify. And that was after we did two days of testing to get ready for that. I did probably 10 to 15 qualifying runs, and we still hardly made the race. You have to test and you have to race as much as possible. Look at A.J. Allmendinger, he couldn’t make hardly any races this year, and he came to us to get some Busch time and now he’s making every race.
Q: Headed back to Martinsville, which is famous for it’s hot dogs. You didn’t have any last time. Will you try one this weekend?
JPM: No. Are you crazy?
Q: You have to at least try one!
JPM: Have you seen them? Never. And last time we were there, (teammate) David Stremme said it was his secret. He had hot dogs for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch and hot dogs for dinner, thinking that was the secret and would make him run good.
Q: And what happened?
JPM: He ran like crap. He was feeling so bad from the hot dogs, he couldn’t do it. Look, I eat hot dogs with a lot of different things than you guys eat here.
Q: Yeah, you eat it with mayonnaise and ketchup and potato chips, right?
JPM: Yeah, and I even put melted cheese on it sometimes. Sometimes with pineapple, and it’s very different from how you eat them here. What is that green stuff you put on it?
JPM: Oh, that’s HORRIBLE!
Q: So, no chance at all you are going to try a Martinsville hot dog?
JPM: Sure, if you want to see me throwing up.
Q: How difficult is Martinsville compared to everywhere else you have been? You finished 16th there in the spring.
JPM: It takes a lot of rhythm. You have to take your time because it’s one of those places where the slower you think you are going, the faster you are actually going. It is pretty hard to go fast. To go fast you have to be so patient, and use a lot of timing.
Q: Are you comfortable there?
JPM: The short tracks I have run better than the big tracks this year. I have three front row starts this year, Dover and Bristol, and we ran good. We had a top 10 at Dover and we ran good at Martinsville. So good that everyone was surprised how well we ran. Even me.