Montoya stepping up on ovals
Talk about the odd couple.
Before Chip Ganassi aligned Juan Pablo Montoya with Chris Heroy at the end of 2011, the NASCAR garage had not witnessed a driver/crew chief combination as peculiar since Harry Hogge called the shots for Cole Trickle — and that was on the big screen.
Certainly, there were times when communication between Montoya and his first Sprint Cup crew chief Donnie Wingo appeared lost in translation, but that was seven years and a half dozen chiefs ago.
Now, the seven-time Formula One winner and former Champ Car champion might have met his match with the former engineer they call “Sunshine” or just “Shine” for short. While Montoya is accustomed to being pampered and placated at some of the trendiest spots in the world, Heroy, who prefers shopping at Goodwill to Gucci, is too grounded to play that game.
But it hasn’t been an easy transition for Heroy, who was part of a complete reorganization of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2012. After Montoya scored just two top-five finishes and was ranked 21st in the 2011 standings, Ganassi cleaned house from upper management to the leadership of the No. 42 Target squad. Technical director John Probst was acquired from Red Bull. Team manager Max Jones had been a long-time lieutenant in the Roush Fenway organization.
Heroy had been a team engineer on the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team and had just started dabbling in the crew chief’s role in the Nationwide Series before moving to EGR.
In their first season together, Montoya posted just two top 10s and led a total of 22 laps. Despite winning the pole for the race at Watkins Glen in 2011, Montoya finished outside of the top 30 on both road courses last year.
“It’s been a struggle,” Heroy said. “It took a process and some time. I feel good about where it’s headed. If we didn’t learn the lessons we learned, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I was learning how to crew chief. I was learning how to communicate with Juan. I was learning how to build a team that would work and communicate together. It was good. I enjoyed every minute of it. But there were times when your patience and resolve get tested.
“Juan is Juan. You figure out your driver eventually. They say one word (is) enough and you figure it out. There’s no veil with Juan. You get everything right away. But learning to pull a team together and maximize the resources that the organization has has been the biggest challenge. It’s also been the biggest improvement and why we’ve been able to challenge for wins and run in the top five.”
In addition to just having time to gel with each other, Heroy and Montoya have been aided as EGR has developed into “a true two-car team,” which has benefited both squads. Another key to the team’s success has been early testing with the new Generation-6 car. Midway through last season, Heroy cut loose on the old car and went all in the on the Gen-6. At the tracks — Richmond, Darlington and Dover — where Montoya has tested the model, the team finished fourth, eighth and second, respectively.
Heroy has experienced success in racing. He spent seven seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. His crew chief skills were honed working in the Nationwide Series with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who offered “Shine” the opportunity two years ago at JR Motorsports. Last year, Junior predicted that Heroy “would become one of the best crew chiefs in the business one day.”
“He’s just a different guy,” Earnhardt said. “He’s just a little more laid back, a little less riled up by things. He’s focused on his job, works really hard. He has a great sense of humor and knows how to enjoy himself.
“He has a lot of talent and he’s a really, really good guy. I believed in him … Hopefully, he can get to Victory Lane and prove his worth. I’m sure he will.”