DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Off the podium a year ago, Chip Ganassi Racing returned to the Rolex 24 at Daytona determined to collect another victory watch.
But the blueprint for getting back to Victory Lane required a shake-up to the lineup of the two-car Ganassi team, and it involved one of the most prolific drivers in the world.
Juan Pablo Montoya was moved from the No. 02 car – sometimes referred to as the "star car" because of its famed driver lineup – to the overshadowed No. 01 car that competes full-time in the Grand-Am Series. Montoya will be teamed with Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, the three-time defending Grand-Am champions, and IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball, who is making his debut in the twice-round-the-clock sports car race.
Montoya said he was given many reasons for the switch, but wants to believe it was done with victory in mind.
"I thought it was a weird move. I don't know what they told you, but they told me about 20 different reasons why they moved me," Montoya said. "I believe that they want to win, and I want to win, too. And I think we can."
He's already done it at Daytona, winning the prestigious race in his 2007 debut and defending the victory a year later. The No. 01 team finished second the next year, and Montoya has spent the last three seasons on the more prolific No. 02 team. While the No. 01 car drove to victory in 2011, the No. 02 team has been shut-out all three years and neither car made the podium last season.
So Ganassi team manager Mike Hull tried something different when setting the lineup this time around, moving Montoya back to the team that competes all year for the Grand-Am championship. The No. 02 team this year is made up of IndyCar champions Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and sports car driver Joey Hand, who swapped spots with Montoya. Hand was part of the 2011 winning team.
Because it's no secret team owner Ganassi has been frustrated with Montoya's performance in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, there was initial rumblings that the move to the No. 01 team was a demotion. Not so, said Hull.
"I think people are maybe a little too analytical because we set these lineups based on experience levels and best matchups, and Juan is a tremendous talent with a great deal of experience and we needed someone to even out that team with Charlie racing here for the first time," Hull said. "And Juan has always been very good about helping the younger guys understand what they need to do in the race car.
"A lot of people think Juan is so hardcore and so gruff, but inside a race car he is very wise, he's not temperamental, he's passionate and he understands the team concept."
Pruett, a four-time race winner trying to tie Hurley Haywood's record of five victories, was thrilled with the return of Montoya to the car.
"It's great – great to have him back. We won this race before together, we've finished second at this race together and Juan gives us a tremendous opportunity to win," Pruett said. "I think Chip and Mike like to keep things fresh, keep things mixed up a little bit. They continue to look at the successes of the cars and try to play to the strengths."
It's seemed to be the right move so far as Pruett put the No. 01 on the pole for the race that begins Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. Dixon qualified second in the No. 02 car, making it a Ganassi front row.
Montoya has only one goal in mind for the weekend and wants to make sure the No. 01 car crosses the finish line out front.
"You go there for a win, that's all," he said. "You either win or you suck. I'm going for a watch."
That's the fiery attitude Ganassi wants to see from Montoya, who left Formula One midway through the 2006 season to move to NASCAR. He hooked back up with Ganassi, the owner who gave Montoya the winning Indianapolis 500 car in 2000, but the results have not come in NASCAR for a driver many consider to be among the most talented in the world.
Montoya has only two wins in six seasons, made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship only once, and finished a disappointing 22nd in the final standings last season with only two top-10s.
He's in the final year of his contract with Ganassi, but said he's under no more pressure than usual to perform.
"I feel pressure every time, I don't want to run badly," he said. "It's hard and I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and that's why I've been able to succeed at every level and it's just hard to work this hard and not get a lot of results. I feel like Chip is really putting everything in place to make sure things work well.
"My God, it's been so hard on both of us. But everybody is on the same page. I don't want to run 20th, he doesn't want to run 20th, Target doesn't want to run 20th. That's why we made all the changes last year. The shocking part is we hire all the new people and we thought things were going to happen overnight, and it's taken a year to see the benefits of it. But I think the benefits are coming and I think we've gone in the right direction."