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Juan Pablo Montoya is NEXT? A 31-year-old with a wife, two kids, flecks of gray hair and triumphs at the most famous race courses in the world† Monza, Monte Carlo, Indianapolis†is NEXT? Well, if youĦre an executive at NASCAR, and your dream is to have a big-talking Latin driver usher the sport to millions south of the border, then heck yes, Montoya is NEXT. Before announcing his switch from Formula One to NASCAR last July, he had already won at the highest levels of open-wheel racing: the CART title as a rookie in 1999, the Indy 500 in 2000, seven Formula One victories in five years. Montoya, a native of Colombia, has driven hard and talked big at every level. ÀThatĦs why I call him a throwback,” says Mike Hull, managing director for Ganassi Racing, recalling the days when Unser, Andretti and Foyt would race shopping carts just for the thrill of it. ÀYeah,” says Montoya, ÀI like to drive the wheels off the race car.” And yet, no driver has successfully made the transition from openwheel to stock cars since Tony Stewart went from CART to NASCAR nine years ago.

Certainly, no driver has been asked to make such a leap while carrying the weight of NASCARĦs global expectations. But, as is MontoyaĦs rep, he hasnĦt backed down. ÀIĦm here to win,” he says, which is exactly what he did on Jan. 28 at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Adds his Busch series crew chief, Brad Parrott: ÀWithin three years, weĦll see him win the Nextel Cup.” Montoya has said all the right things since entering the sport near the end of the Busch season, but itĦs only a matter of time before his new-kid-on-the-oval gentility loses out to his world-famous mouth. After finishing his third Busch race, at Phoenix, in 20th place, he vented his frustration at middle-of-the-pack drivers who, he claimed, wouldnĦt get out of his way: ÀItĦs tough passing these guys†theyĦre just too dumb. IĦm trying to be as friendly as I can be, and whether they like it or not, IĦm here for the long run. So itĦs their problem, not mine.” Big talk for a rookie. ThatĦs why Montoya is NEXT.