Plenty saw stardom for Montoya, even after run-in with Pruett

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Chip Ganassi, hair and a few pounds aside, could have been boxing promoter Don King as he sat between Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Pruett in the media room at the Watkins Glen International Media center on a wet Friday morning.

"So, Scott. Do you need Chip between you two to keep peace?" Pruett was asked.

Pruett laughed. Montoya lowered his head and sheepishly smiled just as he did earlier when Ganassi mentioned this was the first time the two have raced together since that memorable Busch Series race in Mexico City in March.

Ganassi immediately got up and slid Montoya next to Pruett, drawing laughter from the crowd and making it clear that the controversy these two experienced six months ago was over.

No intermediary or referee was needed.

But it was quite funny.

Pruett made it sound as though the two were buddies.

And they are, but they weren't in Mexico City after Montoya spun his teammate out to take the lead with eight laps remaining to cap an amazing comeback from 21st position because he had to make an extra pit stop to fix a fuel hose problem.

"He looked more like a rookie than a champion," Pruett said after that race. "That was just a horse---- rookie mistake. He got too anxious, got in too deep and caught me in the corner.

" … That's what you expect out of first-year guys. Not guys that have the experience he has. Not on road courses."

Montoya, 31, is a rookie under Nextel Cup standards, but he's hardly a rookie by racing standards. He's won championships and races at every level in open-wheel racing, including the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco.

He's definitely not a rookie on road courses. One could argue he's as good as points leader Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who are considered the top Cup has to offer.

Maybe better.

With a win in Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, Montoya would become the first in NASCAR to win at three different road courses in the same season. Besides his victory in Mexico, he won the Cup race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

Few should be surprised.

Keith Armstrong definitely isn't. A tire specialist with Ganassi when Montoya won the Indy 500, nobody was more thrilled to see the Colombian driver move to NASCAR.

He almost predicted it would happen.

Last season at Chicagoland Speedway, the day before Ganassi introduced Montoya as the new driver of the No. 42 car being vacated by Casey Mears, Armstrong told team manager Tony Glover that Montoya would be the best person for the job.

"I told him what we need is a good wheelman," Armstrong said. "I said there was only one man I could think of that could get up to speed as quickly as he would have to, and that was Juan Pablo Montoya."

Armstrong, otherwise known as "Hoss" after the "Bonanza" television character "Hoss" Cartwright, had no idea the announcement was coming.

"I just said what I said based on what I'd seen of him in 1999 and 2000," said the 47-year-old Armstrong, who moved to Ganassi's NASCAR program in 2002. "From a talent standpoint, he's probably the most talented person I've ever worked with in person or had the enjoyment to watch."

No argument here.

Montoya has been a much-needed breath of fresh air to the series. He didn't come in with an arrogant attitude, believing he deserved respect for all he has accomplished in other series.

He says what's on his mind and doesn't mind mixing it up with the top NASCAR stars.

His fifth-place finish at Atlanta and second at Indianapolis drew almost as many headlines as his win at Sonoma because most figured it would take awhile for him to get a handle on ovals.

Armstrong, who calls Montoya's Indianapolis 500 victory his most memorable moment in racing, almost pinches himself at having a second opportunity to work with the driver.

"For me, personally, it's awesome," he said. "Any time the man crawls in a driver's seat he's capable of winning no matter what the circumstances are."

Montoya easily could be a contender for a championship in the next year or so if Ganassi gives him good equipment. He's climbed from 23rd to 18th in points over the past two months, having two top-5s and only one finish outside the top 20 over the last six races.

"The things he's done this year are phenomenal," Armstrong said. "I think people forget how little experience he's got."

Montoya definitely has made Armstrong's job simpler than most rookies.

"He's relatively easy on tires, one of the easier I've worked with," Armstrong said.

I just said what I said based on what I'd seen of him in 1999 and 2000. From a talent standpoint, he's probably the most talented person I've ever worked with in person or had the enjoyment to watch.

Keith Armstrong

Montoya is easy to work with -- period. He doesn't get too high-strung inside the car and he's more relaxed than he ever was in Formula One.

Armstrong saw that right away as Montoya went down the line shaking hands and introducing himself to his new crew members last season at Chicago.

"He got to me and said, 'Hey, I know you. You've gotten fat,'" Armstrong recalled.

Armstrong was a bit heavier. He'd just lost 77 pounds when he met Montoya in 1999. He put about 70 of that back on to top out at 270, but has since trimmed back to 230.

Although he didn't have a good comeback that day, he fires back when Montoya hits him about his weight these days.

"I tell him in another two years he'll be 250 pounds if he keeps gaining weight," Armstrong said of Montoya, who was the butt of many weight jokes when he drove in F1.

Montoya's weight hasn't been an issue in NASCAR, not the way it has been with two-time champion Tony Stewart the past couple of years.

It's definitely not an issue this weekend. He's focused on winning Saturday's Busch race, his last in the series as Ganassi puts all of his focus on Cup and the Car of Tomorrow.

What happened between Montoya and Pruett in Mexico City isn't an issue, either, although Ganassi wouldn't be surprised to see both going for the victory once again.

"I was in the unenviable position of we had cars running 1-2 and neither driver had won a Busch race," Ganassi said. "It was an unfortunate situation. But like Scott said, on Monday it was over.

"Maybe Monday at 5 o'clock it was over."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.