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With Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya on the California 500 front row, life's a dream for car owner Chip Ganassi

  Jamie McMurray: is that cell phone permanently implanted by now, after all those interviews? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   The money, logically, should be on a Jack Roush man to win Sunday's California 500. The Ford team owner 'owns' this track.
   And Greg Biffle, especially after Saturday's charge in the Nationwide 300, and his performance at Daytona last weekend, looks like the best Roush bet.
   However, the man who looks to have the best car here is Juan Pablo Montoya, who starts the 500-miler (noon PT) on the front row next to teammate Jamie McMurray, the Daytona 500 and a popular winner at that.
   And that little tiff Saturday between Biffle and Joey Logano, who have had some run-ins before, may have lingering effects. Logano dominated the 300 only to get shoved out of the way by Biffle in the final miles, opening the door for Kyle Busch to win.
   Sizing up the hoopla last Sunday at Daytona, Montoya says he was pleasantly pleased to finish the action-packed race "with 10th place, with a car with no scratches on it. We had a quiet race."
    So can team owner Chip Ganassi make it a 2-for-2 start to the season with another win here at flat two-mile Auto Club Speedway?
   And what does that say about the Ganassi operation? Until Montoya finally caught fire last summer, during his third year on the NASCAR tour, the Ganassi teams had played in the shadows for several years.
    Now though it looks like Ganassi has a one-two punch, and with Richard Childress engines, Ganassi's two drivers are the early season surprises.
    "For Jamie to win that race was huge....for the team it was a really big success," Montoya says.
    Still, Montoya, and the rest of the men in the garage too, is leery about putting too much emphasis on these early weeks of the season as any good indication of what to expect over the next 10 months. And Matt Kenseth – who opened 2009 2-for-2 and then all but vanished – is a good case in point.
   "We think we've got decent cars, and at the end of last year we had really good cars," Montoya says. "That doesn't mean this year is going to be good: It's wait-and-see the next few weeks where you are and go from there. 
    "Daytona really doesn't reflect how good or how bad your car is.  Daytona reflects how good of a drafting job you did and how many partners you had on the last two laps."
     Plate-racing is a peculiar animal: "There are three before the chase and one in the chase...and you get more out of surviving than trying to win," Montoya says.



   Montoya on Twitter: It's amazing how just a few Tweets can help flesh out a personality (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Now you may think you know Juan Pablo Montoya – Indy-car star, Formula One star and aggressive bad boy, and now in his fourth season on the NASCAR tour, a regular guy pretty much. But Montoya over the past year or so has changed considerably, it appears, and has become much more comfortable in his skin here. He's been upfront all along about how he disliked the politics and social games drivers and teams play in Formula One...and likewise how much more fun NASCAR is, both on the track and off the track.
   And if you want some real insight to JPM, check out his Tweets. Yes, Twitter has become about as busy and fusty and increasingly irrelevant as Facebook and some of those other 'social' media. But some of the Tweeters – Montoya, for one – have managed to use it to show a different side to their personality.
   "It's funny -- a lot of people have no idea who I am, or how I am...and a lot of people wanted to know maybe a little bit more about me," Montoya says. "It doesn't take any of my time, probably five minutes when I do it. And you just do it.
    "You share with them cool things you see, and when you're pissed off you tell them you're pissed off. 
    "It's funny to read some of the responses. 
     "I think it's a cool way to get people that follow you and want you to do well to get a little more involved with you.
    "We started in July with like 2,000 people, and we have over 100,000 now."
    Another side of Juan Pablo Montoya, a softer side: his family. And the NASCAR 'family' this season is expanding, with Jeff Gordon and his wife expecting another child, and Jimmie Johnson and his wife too, and Carl Edwards and his, and Montoya and his.
    "For me, it's been great," Montoya says.  "We loved it from Day One....even in F1 where they're not that much welcome....
    "We wake up early (when home in North Carolina) and take them to school, and then my wife picks them up.  We play with them in the afternoon. If I'm in the warehouse, I take them to the warehouse and they'll play around while I'm building things. 
    "It's a lot of fun; we go go-karting together, we do a lot of things together.
    "Do I want to spend as much time as possible with them?  Yes...but my older kid is in school now and he can't skip.  Before, it was easy; before, you didn't care: When they were in kindergarten you just get them out of school and go. 
    "Now they're in public school and you can't.  But sometimes they come on Friday nights."

     The same with McMurray. He's been around the tour since his splashy debut in 2002 (that win at Charlotte, subbing unexpectedly for Sterling Marlin), but the last few years he's been hit-or-miss, and mostly miss.
    McMurray has a brilliant personality, which is one reason car owner Jack Roush hired him. But on the track McMurray, while showing occasional runs of greatness, has been on-and-off.
   Now, will that change? Will this Daytona 500 win turn his career around?
   Well, it's certainly turned his life around these past few days.
   McMurray says he wants a spreadsheet over everything he's had to do since Sunday night at Daytona: "because I don't believe anyone would believe everything you've gone through and you've gotten to do.
    "You get in the car, they drive you to whatever appearance you're doing...and you think you're going to rest, and then they put a cell phone in your ear and say 'This is a newspaper,' or 'This is a radio station,' or 'This is somebody you don't know,' and you talk all the way there.
    "Then you get out and do your appearance and get back in the car, ready to take a break, and they put the cell phone in your ear again. 
     "No joke. Everybody's cell phone was dead at the end of each day, because we had used them all day long.
      "It's just unbelievable.
    "Something else that has been an eye-opener: I knew what it meant to win this race, but the reaction from fans and from my peers in the garage --like Tony Stewart coming up at dinner to congratulate me -- it's just unbelievable.
     "I've won a few races, and you see a few guys in the garage and they say 'Good job.' But now everybody wants to come up and shake your hand and congratulate you.
    "And that, honestly, is the most enjoyable part of it to me.
    "It's just been wonderful."
   And now it's time to get back to work....



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       Starting lineup for Sunday's California Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif.




 Juan Pablo Montoya (L) and teammate Jamie McMurray 1-2 for the start of Sunday's California 500. Who will be 1-2 at the finish line? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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