The biggest winners last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway were not named Frank Kimmel, Mark Martin or Brian Vickers.
Yes, Kimmel, Martin and Vickers all stood in Victory Lane at the end of their respective ARCA, NASCAR Craftsman Truck and NASCAR Nextel Cup events. But the big winners last weekend were Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger; both of whom opened all the doors necessary to ensure themselves a long and lucrative career in NASCAR racing.
Montoya – the former Formula One star and Indianapolis 500 winner – left little question that his adaptation to full-fendered stock cars will be a smooth one, qualifying on the outside pole, leading nine laps, and eventually finishing third in Friday’s rain-shortened ARCA RE/MAX Series event.
Despite having just one prior practice session in an ARCA car, Montoya ran among the leaders all day, proving to be a quick study in the volatile Talladega draft. He emerged from his No. 4 Texaco/Havoline Dodge with a huge smile at the end of the day, saying, “In Formula One, if you go to the back, you stay in the back. You can be two seconds quicker than any other car, and you still cannot pass him. I got hit, and had to come to the pits four times to fix the car. Even after all that, you go out in the back of a 30-car line, and you still can get back up front. That’s really, really nice.”
There is obviously a substantial gap between ARCA and NASCAR Nextel Cup competition, but NASCAR veteran Mike Wallace – who finished sixth Friday – said Montoya has what it takes to succeed at the highest level of the sport.
“At the start of the race, I was a little leery about racing near him,” said Wallace. “But after just a few laps, I could see that he had a handle on what he was doing. I would have no problem running wide-by-wide with him anywhere we race.”
Montoya will continue his stock car education this weekend in ARCA competition at Iowa Speedway, but after Sunday, there is little doubt that team owner Chip Ganassi made a tremendous call in bringing the Columbian driver to NASCAR.
Equally impressive was Champ Car phenom A.J. Allmendinger, who in only his second NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series start, wheeled a Bill Davis Racing Toyota to fifth place in Saturday’s John Deere 250 at Talladega.
Allmendinger qualified 25th, but methodically worked his way forward, playing the tricky Talladega draft like a veteran. He bypassed numerous opportunities to make questionable lane-changes in traffic, and by mid-race, was solidly in the lead draft. He led a handful of laps, and by the end of the day, had convinced veteran drivers to jump out of line and draft with him. In typical Truck Series fashion, things got a little heated in the final few laps, but Allmendinger never lost his cool, putting his Toyota exactly where it needed to be to score an impressive top-five finish.
As I mentioned during MRN Radio’s live broadcast Saturday, Allmendinger has already gotten plenty of attention from the Toyota camp, as it looks to fill its new NASCAR. If they don’t make the 24-year old Californian an offer he can’t refuse, there’s something seriously wrong with Toyota.