Never a dull moment for Montoya in his rookie season

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Juan Pablo Montoya won a race, finished 20th in points, drew the attention of new fans to the sport, and made all sorts of friends and enemies in the garages of two series this season.

Not bad for a greenhorn with a yellow stripe on his bumper.

Even though the former F1 driver isn't exactly new to his chosen vocation, he was still eligible for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award, which he wrapped up with his 15th-place finish at the Ford 400 here on Sunday. David Ragan was a closer-than-you'd-think second in the race for top rookie after crossing the finish line at Homestead in 10th.

After much offseason hype swirled around his move, which was being sold by NASCAR as nothing short of revolutionary, Montoya's year started strong -- he won the first road course race he entered, bumping aside Scott Pruett in the closing laps to win the Busch Series race in Mexico, on March 4. He then went on to finish as the top rook in 16 of 36 races, highlighted by his win, in his 17th Nextel Cup start, at Sonoma on June 24.

That win was solid evidence of what he could do when he was familiar with a style of track: After winding his way through the pack from 32nd place off the green flag, he led just seven of 110 laps, showing veteran poise by knowing the value of leading the last lap. Sure, he took advantage of leader Jamie McMurray running out of gas, but it was the farthest back a winner had started on a current road course. Montoya's win was the first in Cup by a foreign-born driver since 1974 and he became the third driver to win in NASCAR, Indy cars and Formula One.

The rubber was meeting the road just fine, thank you.

His year wasn't without its bumps, of course. Aside from the kerfuffle caused when Montoya made like a bulldozer with Pruett, a run-in with Kevin Harvick at Watkins Glen -- Martin Truex Jr. pushed Montoya up into Harvick, unbeknownst to Harvick -- spread the bad blood. Harvick gave Montoya a hand signal that's not in the driver's handbook, tossing in a shove that also needed no interpreter, and the two exchanged unpleasantries in two different varieties of accented English before they were separated.

Said Harvick afterward: "He drives like he doesn't know what he's doing, to be honest with you. He goes out, he can run fast, but he's all over the place and every week it seems like he runs into a different person."

He also struggled with the Car of Tomorrow to the point that his team purposely set up the car loose during a test in Atlanta so he would improve his ability to adjust. Montoya also got into it with Tony Raines during the first Martinsville race and was fined $10,000 for giving an in-car camera the finger during a Busch Series race in Phoenix. As you can see, Montoya was trying his hardest to fit in with the rebel realm of NASCAR.

On Sunday at Homestead -- where he made his Cup debut last year, finishing 34th after a crash -- he made it as high as third. A subsequent pit stop dropped him back to seventh and he eventually faded toward the middle of the pack, a tidy microcosm of his season.

"It went pretty good," Montoya, 32, said while Jimmie Johnson was celebrating his Cup Series title. "We had a bit of everything. It was up and down. … I think, more important, is how the performance of the team came up through the whole year. Where we started and where we finished is a big difference."

Montoya said racing on ovals was one of the biggest challenges, as he had raced on only 10-15 before coming to NASCAR.

"Getting back to the ovals, back into the big car, big horsepower, very little grip, I'll tell you, it's a handful," he said.
"In open-wheel, when you're good, you have a lot of grip. The car does whatever you want. It does it all the time, where, here, when you're good, it'll do that for about 10 laps. It keeps you busy.

"We got stronger as the season went on. We have to work a lot harder over this winter, especially on the COT. Next year will be pretty exciting. … We're headed in the right direction."

Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.