Montoya may just have it all figured out

September, 19, 2009

LOUDON, N.H. -- The other 11 drivers enter the Chase game-faced. Juan Pablo Montoya comes rollicking in, always running on the edge of laughing.

If sheer cool can win a championship, Montoya is a lock. I've never seen a driver enter NASCAR's playoffs feeling less pressure, having a better time -- and yet more calculating of what it will take to win the Cup.

"Oh, yeah, I'm loving it," he said Friday. "It's kind of nice having like zero pressure right now. It's cool."

I keep sensing that Montoya knows something the rest of us in and around NASCAR don't. But maybe that's just the joy he exudes at having figured out a system that was foreign to him until three years ago, when he phoned Chip Ganassi from Europe and said in the voice of a kid asking for a new toy, "I want to drive that car!" meaning Ganassi's No. 42.

Lately Montoya has been unabashedly points racing, tiptoeing through the latter races of the regular season, just to make sure he got into the Chase. Now, we shall see … Now, "you gotta go for broke," he said soon after not just winning the pole for Sunday's playoff opener, the Sylvania 300, but winning it with a track-record speed of 133.431 mph.

Then, as he is wont to do, Montoya hedged back and forth on the all-out charge for wins versus playing it smart and, perhaps, points racing some more, even deep into the Chase. He has learned a lot from one of his closest friends in the garage, Mark Martin, whose mantra is that the Chase won't really take shape until the halfway point.

"I think the first five races you definitely have to get a top-10 every week," Montoya said. "Ideally a top-5, but I think if you can get the first four or five races a pretty good average with good finishes" -- now the hedging to the other view -- "and if you get a chance to win you've got to take them now."

That said, I asked him if storming to the pole here might be an early indication that that chance might present itself Sunday.

"It's great" being on the pole, he said. "But you know how these races go. If it was a 10-lap shootout, would say, 'hahahey, we're lookin' gooood. But there's like 300 laps or something. It's a bunch of laps."

I pointed out that Jeff Burton led every lap on the quirky, 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

"The chances of my leading every time coming out of the pits are pretty slim," Montoya said. "So you've got to have a good car for traffic."

Even with all that, his blown domination of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in July is fresh in his mind. Even after leading 116 laps, pit stops be damned, he was caught speeding on the pit road late in the race and wound up 11th.

So he's figured out the luck involved, the rule of "circumstances" -- as the NASCAR sage Richard Petty calls the way things fall -- and now Montoya asked rhetorically, right on the edge of laughing, "You can't change what's going to happen, can you?"

Crapshoot racing is fun compared to Formula One, from whence he came in 2006 when he tired of the politics and the mountainous BS, because "In Formula One when you've got the best car you're gonna win, and when you don't have the best car you don't win. It's that simple. Here, every week, you've got a shot at winning …"

Montoya has yet to win an oval-track race in NASCAR, but Indy in July, plus a third-place finish at Atlanta two weeks ago after leading 31 laps, indicate he's on the threshold.

"You always try," he said of winning, "but you always try being smart."

And then he hedged again, the philosophic pendulum swung back, and he said, "I think here you can go a little bit more out of control."

Out of control, or on the edge of it, was the way Montoya won seven F1 races under the raised eyebrows of the stodgier other drivers and media, who found him overly aggressive for the glamorous single-file promenade of Grand Prix racing.

Now he has reached some mental compromise, having worked out the math of the NASCAR points system. But if he reckons at a given moment that he can "go a little bit more out of control," then the Chase could take on a new kind of pizzazz, and he could make a run at becoming the first foreign-born driver to win the Cup.

But the international prospects have zero appeal to him.

"If I win the Cup, cool. That's it."

But a first? "No, that's not a big deal for me. I don't get any special treatment or anything. I wouldn't mind getting some, but I don't."

Again he went right to the edge of laughing -- was a little more out of control.



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