NASCAR & Auto Racing

Montoya posts a strong second

INDIANAPOLIS – In the immediate aftermath of his runner-up finish in Sunday’s Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, someone asked Juan Pablo Montoya if he could still make this year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup.

It’s a stretch to think that’s possible, but six months ago the notion itself would have been totally absurd.

Montoya is 18th in the standings, 200 points behind 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’d likely need top-10 finishes in each of the next six races before the Chase cutoff to have any kind of a shot, and would still need some help from the guys ahead of him.

But there is a road-course race, at Watkins Glen, among those six races. Pocono, the site for next week’s race, has a lot of the same characteristics as Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Michigan and California are relatively straightforward 2-mile ovals.

OK, stop. Again, the very idea that Montoya is even a dark-horse contender to make the 2007 Chase is kind of out there. But ask yourself this question. If Montoya shows as much improvement from now to end of his rookie Nextel Cup season as he has so far this year, wouldn’t you just about have to consider him a candidate to make the 2008 Chase?

“I think from where I thought I was going to be at this point, you’d have to say I am way ahead,” Montoya said. “But from where I want to be, we are still behind.”

This is Montoya’s mentality. He’s not a novelty act, or a road-course ringer. He’s won the Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco, and on Sunday he became the first driver to ever run in all three of the major races – the Indy 500, the Allstate 400 and the U.S. Grand Prix – at this track, and he’s already one of only three drivers with victories in NASCAR, Formula One and American open-wheel racing.

If he keeps getting better, he’s going to make a lot of motorsports history. But what he’s more interested in now is making NASCAR history.

“We have to be able to do what Hendrick Motorsports does,” Montoya said of his Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team, which had Montoya second and Reed Sorenson fifth in Sunday’s finishing order. “They show up every week and they’re up there. You have to be good week in and week out.”

Montoya started second alongside Sorenson on Sunday, and there was nothing fluky about his day. He ran near the front all afternoon and added his best NASCAR oval-track finishing spot to his best oval starting spot.

“I am in a nice position,” Montoya said. “I have managed to achieve a lot of things in my life already, and now I don’t have the pressure of performing to keep my job. ...It’s great working for Chip since he believes 100 percent in me.”

It may be a little early for all stock car fans to believe that strongly that Montoya will ultimately be the kind of consistent contender he talked about being after Sunday’s race.

But it sure is getting a lot harder to doubt it.