WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Juan Pablo Montoya finally had a race without a mistake, and he proved invincible.
The hard-driving Colombian erased 113 races of futility Sunday, winning a duel with Marcos Ambrose and the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International.
“It’s about time,” Montoya said after celebrating with his crew in Victory Lane. “We’ve lost a lot of them, gave away a lot of them. It gets frustrating, everybody fighting. There’s so many things I have to learn. I still make a lot of mistakes. It’s experience. We’ve just got to learn from it.”
Frustration mounted when crew chief Brian Pattie’s pit strategy backfired at the previous two races. A late four-tire call likely cost Montoya a win at the Brickyard 400, and he finished 16th a week ago at Pocono after starting second, another questionable pit call the culprit that led to harsh words over the radio.
A pre-race talk at Watkins Glen with team co-owner Chip Ganassi helped clear the air. Montoya went out, withstood repeated stalking and challenges from Ambrose and won going away.
Montoya led 74 of 90 laps and beat Kurt Busch to the line by nearly five seconds for his second career victory, the other coming on NASCAR’s other road course at Sonoma in 2007, 113 races ago. Montoya gave Earnhardt Ganassi racing just its third victory of the season.
Ambrose was third, his third straight top-three finish at Watkins Glen, followed by AJ Allmendinger and pole-sitter Carl Edwards. Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 10.
It was the first career victory for Pattie, who fought back tears after watching the No. 42 take the checkered flag.
“It’s huge,” Pattie said. “I still want to win on an oval. He wants to prove his point. The Brickyard was my fault. Hope this makes up for it. Trophies mean a lot. It’s pretty cool.”
Montoya made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, made a strong run early in the 10-race post-season, and finished eighth in points. His chances of making the Chase this year vanished early. He’s failed to finish seven of the first 21 races and is well out of contention.
“Last year, we were so hung up on making the Chase that it was all about numbers, it wasn’t about being fast or slow,” said Montoya, who dominated the 2009 Brickyard 400, only to lose a chance at his first victory on an oval by speeding on pit road. “It was about bringing the car home every week.
“This year, we thought we were going to do the same thing. But by race five, we had three DNFs. Then you’ve got to be realistic about what’s going to happen. I started being aggressive, and a lot mistakes came. I think this will really bring the team together. It’s a great thing for the future.”
Ambrose won his third straight Nationwide race over the 11-turn, 2.45-mile Watkins Glen layout on Saturday. He was poised to capture his first Sprint Cup victory at Sonoma in June when things went awry. He stalled his No. 47 while leading under a late caution, was unable to keep pace, had to restart seventh when he couldn’t get it refired and finished sixth.
He seemed destined to finally break through at The Glen, but the handling on the last set of tires was off and Kurt Busch slipped past him late.
“It hurts,” said Ambrose, who announced recently that he was leaving JTG-Daugherty Racing after the season. “It doesn’t feel nice.”
Montoya was able to pull away on every restart, but each time Ambrose reeled him in. When the race restarted for the final time with 15 laps remaining, Kurt Busch passed Ambrose as Montoya took off again, pulling away as Busch kept Ambrose at bay.
Ambrose got past Busch in the first turn of Lap 77 and began the chase again as it became a two-car contest. This time, Ambrose was unable to cut into the lead as Montoya steadily pulled away, increasing his lead from 1.7 seconds to 4.2 seconds in five laps.
“We lost the handle on it on the last stop,” Ambrose lamented. “We tried hard all day. Juan drove a heck of a race. He wasn’t giving me anything. I just wore out everything trying to pass him.”
Ambrose, who started 11th, steadily made his way through the field after the green flag waved and was second by Lap 24.
Six laps later, he was on Montoya’s back bumper and stayed there as Montoya was hard on the brakes, often smoking the tires. They nearly touched on Lap 39 and were side by side in the inner loop at the top of the high-speed esses the next time around. Ambrose finally made the pass on the 41st lap in turn one, a hard downhill right-hander, forcing Montoya onto the runoff area with an aggressive inside move.
Both pitted together with 30 laps remaining and Montoya beat Ambrose out before a caution flew for debris.
Montoya held off Ambrose when the race restarted, but two laps later Stewart clipped Boris Said in the exit of turn one, sending Said into the guardrail to bring out another caution.
That erased any worries about fuel in case of overtime. But as soon as the race restarted, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were involved in a crash, resulting in another caution.
“He’s driving a great race,” Ambrose said, referring to Montoya during the caution. “He’s really hard to pass. It’s going to be a big battle. I’m going to see if I can force him into a mistake. I just want to be clean until the end.”