Montoya surprise so far of Chase

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by Associated Press

khou.com

Posted on October 7, 2009 at 9:09 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- For 26 races, Juan Pablo Montoya and his

crew chief worked solely on making the Chase for the Sprint Cup

championship.

After grabbing one of the coveted berths, everything over the

final 10 races was thought to be a bonus. There were no

expectations and zero pressure.

And maybe that's why they've been the most surprising team of

the Chase.

Montoya is the only driver to finish inside the top five in all

three Chase races as the series heads this weekend to Auto Club

Speedway in California. He's ranked third in the standings, just 51

points behind leader Mark Martin, and the Colombian is hanging

tough in his bid to become the first foreign-born champion in

NASCAR history.

It's not with smoke and mirrors, either.

"We're done giving up points," crew chief Brian Pattie said in

a nod to the conservative strategy the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

team had used all year. Montoya raced for solid finishes instead of

victories, and as a result he went into the Chase winless but with

an average finishing position of 13.9.

Everyone knew that wasn't going to be enough, and no one was

certain the No. 42 team had anything more to give.

They wasted little time proving otherwise, leading every

practice session in the opener at New Hampshire, where Montoya set

a track record in winning the pole for his 100th career start. He

almost grabbed his first career win on an oval, too, but was

outfoxed by Martin in the closing laps and had to settle for third.

Then he grabbed a career-best fourth-place finish at Dover, and

matched it last week at Kansas. He's done it with aggressive

driving -- he dived inside late in the race to go three-wide with

champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- and brand new cars

Pattie saved for the Chase.

"Juan has found another gear after Richmond that I didn't know

he had," Pattie said. "I was hoping he did, but I didn't know."

Criticized at times this season for points-racing, Montoya and

his team are finally showing what they've had for some time now.

Pattie had an entire fleet of cars ready to roll several months

ago, and on paper, it looked as if they'd outperform the Chevrolets

he'd been giving to Montoya all season.

But the crew chief said Montoya found the new cars "drive more

evil," and Pattie was too nervous to risk using one until they'd

officially locked down a Chase spot. So the first of the new cars

made its debut at New Hampshire, and that's when Montoya stormed to

the front of the pack.

The driver may hate the new cars -- he was surly at times Sunday

over his radio, when he complained about the handling -- but they

are definitely making a difference. Montoya won't race a new car

Sunday at California -- Pattie is bringing back the car that almost

won Indianapolis -- still, the Chevy he drove to an 11-place finish

at California in February is now the third backup.

"They definitely don't drive like a Cadillac, but we used a

Cadillac and ran 15th," Pattie said. "I'd prefer they are more

like a Ferrari -- they don't drive that great, but they sure are

fast."

It's given everyone a chance to see just how far Montoya has

come since his late 2006 move from Formula One to NASCAR, and how

radically improved his team is since Pattie was given the challenge

of rebuilding Chip Ganassi's flagship team 16 months ago.

And it's put Montoya back in title contention for the first time

in years. Although he has an Indianapolis 500 win and CART

championship on his resume, his stint in F1 was pocked with

inconsistency and his maturation in NASCAR was slowed by the

overall performance of the Ganassi organization.

So there's been just one win through three seasons, on the road

course at Sonoma in 2007, and Montoya started the Chase with just

seven top-fives in 99 previous starts. Only two of them were this

season, before the Chase began.

It became clear twice this season that Montoya is a little rusty

running for wins -- a speeding penalty late at Indianapolis cost him

a sure win, and Martin fooled him to beat him at New Hampshire --

but he's given no sign that he's under any pressure to win a title

this year.

"Everybody is calm and everybody knows what they've got to

do," Montoya said. "Our goal was really making the Chase, and

there was a lot of pressure on everybody to do. We did. Of course

you want to run well, of course you want to fight for the

championship, but this is a bonus for us right now.

"Everybody is pumped up about it and everybody is trying to

bring their A-game every week. It's exciting."

Pattie is surrounded by it all week, while Montoya returns to

Miami to play family man and recharge between races. The crew chief

found that the driver is relaxed and loose by the time he gets to

each racetrack, and the team morale has never been higher.

"Everybody had us written off before the season even started,"

Pattie said. "We're not supposed to be here, remember? And now,

where we are parked in the garage, we're getting respect we weren't

getting 12 months ago. Team morale has never been better, and the

way we're going about things, everyone is just having a lot of

fun."

Pattie thinks it can continue because there are many other story

lines besides Montoya's to focus on right now. He looks around the

garage at counterparts Chad Knaus, Alan Gustafson and Darian Grubb,

and doesn't envy the pressures they've got crew chiefing three-time

defending champion Johnson, sentimental favorite Martin or Tony

Stewart, who is trying to become the first driver-owner to win a

title since 1992.

So long as those drivers stay in title contention, the plan is

to keep Montoya off the radar and inside the top five.

"We'll let everyone put it on Chad and Jimmie for four

straight, or Alan trying to get Mark his first one, or Smoke for

moving to his own team," Pattie said.

"We're racing champions, which is a good thing. There's no

pressure on us. We can just stay with what's been working."

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