Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has announced that Juan Montoya's long-time crew chief Brian Pattie is to be replaced by Jim Pohlman on an interim basis with immediate effect.
Pattie has been Montoya's crew chief since taking over from Jimmy Elledge a third of the way into the 2008 season, and the pairing succeeded in getting Montoya into the Chase in 2009 and propelled Montoya to his Cup race win on the road course at Watkins Glen in 2010 during a 115-race association.
However, Montoya finished only 17th in the Cup points last year and is in the same position in the 2011 season after 19 of the 36 races, and with only seven races remaining until the Chase cut-off. Standing 59pts adrift of the top ten, Montoya's hopes of making it into the Chase increasingly appear to rest on securing a race win and claiming one of the two wildcard berths.
Montoya's best chance of this will be in the upcoming second road race of the year on August 14, back Watkins Glen which saw Montoya's success in the previous season. Next week's Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also a prime opportunity for the Colombian, after two strong performances in past years coming close to giving him his much-sought-after first oval win in NASCAR. It's a venue Montoya knows well from other series, being a former Indianapolis 500 winner in 2000 before his switch to F1.
Possibly disrupting the team going into two such strong opportunities for the #42 is a risk and seems curiously timed at such a critical juncture. However, the schedule which allows a rare weekend off this week from Cup competition appears to be allowing teams the breathing space to make urgent changes.
Montoya and Pattie had looked closed to a professional divorce midway through the 2010 season
before the looming breach was healed by that famous victory at Watkins Glen. This year, with no such silver lining in prospect, the final straw appears to have been confusion over where to line-up for a critical late restart at Kentucky coupled with running out of fuel on the last lap of Sunday's race at New Hampshire, which saw Montoya fall to 30th place and lose vital points despite pitting later than the eventual race winner Ryan Newman.
Pattie is being replaced on an interim basis by Jim Pohlman, 33, who joined the team in 2006 and was crew chief for David Stremme in 2007, also working as John Andretti's chief mechanic at the Daytona 500 in 2009 among a variety of engineering and research and development roles for the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. Prior to that he was car chief for Bill Elliott who won the 2002 Brickyard 400 for Ray Evernham's team.
"We are pleased to have someone of Jim's caliber to be able to place into this role on the #42 team," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "Jim has been with us a number of years and I have confidence in his abilities to move the team forward."
Recent weeks have seen Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle and AJ Allmendinger all change their crew chiefs, while Penske's change of technical director worked wonders for the team's performance earlier in the season and Stewart-Haas' shake-up and change of director of competition culminated in last weekend's famous 1-2 triumph for Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart.
Biffle's crew chief Greg Erwin exited Roush Fenway Racing after being dropped as crew chief for the #16 and was immediately snapped up by Richard Petty Motorsports this week as replacement crew chief for the #443 of AJ Allmendinger. However, Pattie is unlikely to be making any similar immediate lateral move: he's in the final year of his contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and confirmed that he had not yet been released from that commitment.
"I'm going to help Jim get up to speed because the next three races are all races we can win," he said in a phone interview with the Associated Press. The team have not said what capacity - if any - Pattie will remain with the organisation, and a team spokeswoman said no changes had been made beyond the crew chief change.
Montoya's team mate, Jamie McMurray, is even worse off and is back in 29th position in the Cup standings despite claiming pole position at Martinsville. Montoya himself has claimed two pole positions so far this season, in California and Richmond, but his best finish was third place at Las Vegas during a strong phase in the early races of the season before he started to slowly sink down the Cup standings as the year has progressed.