CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Juan Pablo Montoya followed the numbers on a detailed chart last season, when his crew chief mapped out exactly how the driver needed to finish each race to qualify for his first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The plan worked to perfection as Montoya, racing conservatively, improved at nearly every track and earned one of the coveted 12 spots in the Chase field.
It would make sense, then, for Montoya to again rely on crew chief Brian Pattie's color-coded blueprint to contend for his first NASCAR championship this season. Only problem? All that carefully calculated math went out the window when Montoya finished 34th or worse in four of the first eight races this season.
"He isn't even looking at the numbers now, I can tell you that," Montoya said. "After (Texas), I asked where are we, he said 'I don't know, I don't care, let's just go out and try to win some races.' "
That's the exact opposite of how Pattie persuaded Montoya to race last season, when aggressive setups and on-track gambles were shunned in favor of smart driving and big-picture thinking. Montoya entered his third season of Sprint Cup racing with a grand total of nine top-10 finishes, and Pattie knew that number needed to increase sharply for the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team to have any shot at making the Chase.
And for a small, two-car team like EGR, making the Chase can be as important as winning the championship.
Montoya bought in to Pattie's plan, and doubled his top-10 finishes to get the No. 42 into the Chase. That's when Pattie got aggressive, cutting his driver loose to race hard for wins. Although Montoya fell short of Victory Lane — his only Cup win was on the road course at Sonoma in his 2007 rookie season — Montoya flirted with the title by finishing fourth or better in five of the first six Chase races before fading to eighth in the final standings.
The experience of last season and racing in the Chase gave Montoya and his team confidence they'd contend again this year. And if luck wasn't such a vital part of the sport, he'd probably be sitting comfortably inside the top 10 in points.
Instead, strong cars have been sabotaged by bad timing and bad breaks in what's shaping up to resemble a "checkers-or-wreckers" season. When Montoya has been able to finish a race incident-free, he's wound up inside the top-10 four times.
—An engine failure at California led to a 37th-place finish in a race in which he'd led 29 laps.
—A wreck with teammate Jamie McMurray when both were running inside the top-10 resulted in a 37th at Las Vegas.
—Accidents at Bristol and Texas led to finishes of 26th and 34th, and a tire problem at Martinsville led to a 36th-place finish.
But Montoya has led laps in seven of nine races this season, making his statistics a poor barometer of how strong he's been.
"It is crazy," he said. "Yes, we have the cars to do it, but, you have to have the luck to be able to get the results. It is kind of frustrating. I kind of understand what Kyle (Busch) went through last year. He won I don't know how many races (four) and didn't make the Chase.
"I don't think it is over yet. We just have to keep working on it and see what happens. I can tell you I am enjoying myself. I would love to be higher in the points, but I mean we have good race cars. And that is worth more than everything."
Montoya made up considerable ground last weekend at Talladega, where he finished third behind winner Kevin Harvick and McMurray. There had been some concern that Montoya did not have enough fuel to make it to the end, but Pattie wouldn't bring him in for gas.
"The fuel pressure dipped a little when I went wide open," Montoya radioed late in the race.
"Well, we are not pitting," Pattie shouted back. "I'll run that son of a gun out of gas."
It was an aggressive gamble so out of character for what Pattie had preached last season, but he's no longer in position to play it safe.
"I don't need to know about average finishes," he said of his tendency to use charts. "I just need to finish right now. And I want to win races. Bad."
The strategy almost worked, too. If other drivers had drafted a little bit differently over the last two laps, it would have been Montoya and Denny Hamlin racing each other for the victory, not Harvick and McMurray.
Still, Montoya left with that third-place finish and gained considerable ground in the standings. He now heads into Richmond International Raceway this weekend up four spots in the standings to 20th, and he's only 123 points out of 12th.
As the long summer stretch of racing is set to begin, Pattie understands that the key is preventing his crew from growing discouraged by the rash of bad luck. Everybody knows they've got competitive cars — and the No. 42 was apparently the best in the field at last week's important Indianapolis test — but failure to see consistent results can play mind games with anyone.
"I don't know that it's true that we've just had bad luck," Pattie said. "I believe you make your own luck, and we've just got to keep moving forward and not jump off any ledges. But we'll be fine. I won't let it happen."
Montoya is certain there are slip-ups still to come.
"I haven't screwed up yet and you have got to count that I am going to screw up at least twice," he said, and the first could come this weekend in Richmond.
"I don't like it," he said of the short track. "I am being honest. It is a pretty tricky track. We never really run that well there. Not one of my favorites."
But he also knows there's not much room for error going forward.
"If we want to try to make the Chase, we need top-fives and wins. That is only way we are going to make the Chase," he shrugged. "If we start running 10th or 12th every week, there is no way we are going to make it."