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Montoya feels calm and comfortable heading into Sunday's Talladega 500...and that should scare his rivals


Juan Pablo Montoya: can an F1 winner at Monte Carlo beat NASCAR's finest at Talladega too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Warning: This dog will bite.
   And that's just the kind of driver you want at the wheel at Talladega – the kind that will go for the hole when it isn't quite there yet, knowing it will open up just for him.
    For all Juan Pablo Montoya's talents, like that Sonoma afternoon when he scored his first NASCAR tour victory in the summer of 2007, he's got to win on a NASCAR oval to really establish himself on stock car turf. And with Saturday's pole for Sunday's race here, he looks ready to take the game to the sport's big names.
   "This is one of those place where you think 'Oh, we've got a good enough car….' but people don't go with you.
   "You've got to push people and make people go.
    "If you want to go somewhere, you're actually going to hit people (bump-draft), and make sure you hit them hard enough that they know you're going to go with them.
    "Early on it doesn't matter whether you make the right move or the wrong move, or you fall back, or you stay in the front…as long as the 'big one' doesn't happen around you when you went to the back, you should be okay.
    "It's just a matter of timing, and making sure you can hook with somebody who is fast -- and you've got to be loyal. If you are loyal to people during the day, at the end of the day you're going to need them if you want to win this."
   Winning the pole here is more than just a good starting spot and a good spot on pit road – "It shows the car has a lot of speed….and when it comes down to it, people are going to know you're going to have loads of speed," Montoya says.
    "If I have loads of speed, then if I make a move, there is a chance that people are going to go with you, because they know your car is going to go.
   "Now at the beginning of the race, being on a clean track, things are a little bit calmer up front.
   "Is this going to make you the favorite to win the race? No. But we always run good here. And the goal is to win the race.
    "So getting our first pole is big…takes the weight off of everybody's shoulders, and shows where the team is heading. It is very encouraging."
   More than that really: "It is pretty cool," the unflappable F1 star added, in that nonchalant way of his.
   Actually things are looking up all the way around for car owner Chip Ganassi, who won the Indy-car race last weekend in Long Beach with Dario Franchitti, who couldn't land enough sponsorship last year to stick around in NASCAR.
   "That was big for Dario and big for the team," Montoya says. "That program has always been so strong, that Indy-car program. This side has always been a little bit weaker.
    "We're working to make sure this program is at least as good as that one. And we're getting there.
    "It's kind of funny -- last year you're running 20th or 25th, and you're like 'Oh, if you run 17th, you're happy.' Now we run 15th and we think 'No -- we suck today.'
     "The potential is there. Everybody just wants to run so well. Everybody wants to make sure we go the extra mile."
     Unlike many Indy-car guys who make a run at a NASCAR career, Montoya has shown the savvy right from the start…and enough humility to go the ARCA route to earn his spurs, rather than jump right into the big leagues head-first.
   And he certainly seems to understand all the nuances of this game. In terms of sheer driving talent, even in this big, awkward two-ton machines, Montoya is probably one of the top 10 or 12 on the track today.
   But his equipment has never been up to his talents.
   Maybe now, with Richard Childress and Chevrolet in the mix, that may be changing.
   "I really enjoy the restrictor-plate racing, really get a kick out of it, having everybody so close together," Montoya says. "It is not about who has the fastest car, it is about putting yourself in the right position -- getting the right runs, doing the right stuff.
    "You can always get involved in the wrecks. When we were leading here in November, right after the top group passed us (Greg Biffle and teammate Carl Edwards), they got involved in a wreck and came down and hit us….and there is nothing you can do.
    "But if you can stay out of trouble, you can get a top-five out of a place like this --  and a top-five in points is huge."
   Not only does Childress need to show the stock car world he's still got what it takes, Chevrolet needs to make some positive headlines itself, in these uncertain economic times.
   Plus, NASCAR couldn't do much better than to have Montoya win here, considering the slumping TV ratings lately.
   On the positive side, the controversial and typically ill-handling car-of-tomorrow likely won't be an issue here, either in handling or in tire wear, two major issues for that machine at most tracks.
    Montoya in fact says the thing that typically worries him here is not the race itself, but the practices – "It is dangerous here in practice, and when you have a fast car like we have, you can't really risk it.
   "This will always be a 'lottery' here.
    "But this is one of the fun places, because you can go anywhere. You can go three-wide, four-wide.
    "It is all about working with people…and you can make it a lot of fun."


One year ago at Talladega: Juan Pablo Montoya riding Kyle Busch's bumper to the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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