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Juan Pablo! Will he be the big surprise of the chase? He's on the pole for Sunday's 300..but questions abound

  Juan Pablo Montoya: Yes, that's a Bowtie Chevy this season, but will he and team owner Chip Ganassi be switching back to Dodge for 2010? And what would then happen to the Teresa Earnhardt part of the current Earnhardt-Ganassi team? Might GM execs even help revive the 'Earnhardt' brand somehow? Is DEI, or what's still left of it, on the auction block? Or does anyone in Detroit even care any more? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Juan Pablo Montoya! Now he can let it all hang out. And Friday he beat both looming rain and his 11 chase challengers to win the pole for Sunday's 300-miler, the first race of the 10-week title playoffs, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
   "It's nice to be able to run this good, and it's important to get a good pit position," Montoya said after edging Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, all title runners, for the top starting spot for the 2 p.m. ET start.
   First, Indianapolis. Then Formula One. Now NASCAR. The Colombian, who turns 34 Sunday, has become a legitimate NASCAR racer during his 2-1/2 seasons on the stock car tour, and now he's got a shot at the NASCAR championship.
    With Montoya's not-so-overnight success – despite how talented he is, and how relatively quickly he picked this up – he has a few words of wisdom for Indy-star Danica Patrick, who says she wants to jump to NASCAR:
   "Danica -- If she comes here and runs people hard, they'll just dump her," Montoya says. "I've gotten dumped a lot of times.
    "You can't run these cars like you run open-wheel.
    "And there is a certain way to drive these cars to go fast…and if you asked me to describe it I couldn't. Some weeks I go to Mark Martin and say 'I can't figure this out, can you help me?' And he'll just laughs. I can run the bottom maybe seven times out of 10; but Mark can hit it 10 out of 10.
    "We ran pretty good the first year here (2007); but last year was horrible. But look at how (crew chief) Brian Pattie and I are running now…where in the past we would be celebrating running 15th."
   But first he would like to win a race this season. He's one of four still-winless title challengers. His only tour win was in the summer of his rookie season, at Sonoma…though he dominated the Brickyard 400 in July, only to be foiled by a late-race speeding penalty.
   Montoya's game plan for the chase? "I think the first five races you definitely have to try to get a top-10 every week. Ideally a top-five.
   "But I think if you can get the first four or five races a pretty good average, with good finishes….and if you get a chance to win you've got to take them now. You always try, but you always try being smart.
    "I think here you can go a little bit more out of control. I think you have to go for broke here."
   Good. For much of the summer it appeared the hard-charging F1 racer was cooling his NASCAR jets, and points-racing to make the playoffs.
   Of course that dramatic up-the-middle move during the Atlanta 500 a couple weeks ago showed that Montoya still has that feisty driving edge when pressed.
   But one of the edges Montoya may have in the playoffs is that he's still loose and cool about everything in NASCAR. After winning Monte Carlo and other F1 events, he knows what major league pressure can be, and he still considers NASCAR fun:
    "I'm loving it. It's kind of nice having like zero pressure right now. It's cool.
    "In Formula One when you've got the best car you've got to 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. And you've got to try to do the best to take it.
    "But it's hard, because any given Sunday out there there are four or five cars that can win the race…that can actually win the race. Then it comes down to pit stops and strategy and stuff like that."
     And, uh, not speeding on pit road, eh?
    Montoya has managed to shrug off that bitter loss at Indianapolis. And that cool should be an edge for Montoya over perhaps more highly strung rivals down the season's stretch.
   "You can't change what's going to happen, can you?" Montoya says, with perhaps odd philosophy.
   "You just go out there and do your best, and hopefully your best is good enough. I'm in favor of letting the car do the talking.
    "As long as you go home thinking -- and knowing -- you did all you could, that's what you can do.
    "You've got to look back and say 'Okay, was it good enough?' And if it wasn't, why, and learn from it.
    "Hopefully by the end of these 10 races you've still got a shot at it."
    And what about Sunday here? "If this were a 10-lap shootout, I'd be thinking 'He, he, we're looking pretty good,'" Montoya says. "But this thing is 300 or 400 laps, a lot of laps."
    The first five starters are title contenders; deeper in the pack are Jimmie Johnson (16th), Ryan Newman (18th), Greg Biffle (22nd) and Brian Vickers (26th).
    On the outside of the front row will be Stewart: "Normally if we qualifying well here we race well here, so this is a good start." 
    For some of the 12 title runners, there is the added pressure of needing a tour victory.
   Remember Edwards, the back-flipping star who won nine races last season and made such a strong bid for the NASCAR championship?
   Well, he's one of four men in the 12-man Sprint Cup title chase still without a tour win, after eight months.
   But Edwards insists the non-winners are still all legitimate title contenders: "It does not matter what you did last week. It doesn't matter what you did the last 26 weeks. 
    "This is a second chance. This is a new beginning. 
    "For the same reason you can't look at last season and say who is going to be in the chase this year, you can't look at the first part of the season and say who is going to be strong in the last 10. 
    "Really, this isn't lip service. It really has the feel that any one of these 12 guys can win this thing. 
    "That's good for me. I want to be that guy. It seems like the peaks and valleys are a shorter frequency and higher amplitude right now."
    Nevertheless Edwards, like most men in the chase, picks Jimmie Johnson as the title favorite: "He has to be.  He's shown that he can do it.
   "But the last couple of days we've spent a little time up in New York with all the guys, and when you really look at the group this year, I think that this is wide open. Anyone can win this thing. 
    "I think Juan Montoya has just as good a chance as Jimmie, with the way he's been running.  Brian Vickers has scored more points than anyone the last 10 races, and there's nothing saying he couldn't do that again.  And then you look at Greg Biffle and me -- Last year we put together a really strong chase, and nobody expected Greg to come out and win the first two and be that fast.
   "Yeah, Jimmie is the favorite, but I think this is going to be a real interesting one. It has that feeling to me."

    The starting lineup for Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway at Loudon NH


Mike, where are you hearing

Mike, where are you hearing that Ganassi might revert to Dodge again? As much as this mopar guy would like to see that, I just don't see that happening...maybe an engine partnership with Penske? ha. But Montoya has shown his affection for the Chevy engine so its doubtful they'll switch at all.

People talk....and I'm

People talk....and I'm hearing 'the Earnhardt brand,' whatever that really is today, is on the tables for discussion. Where those tables are, I'm not sure, though.
But just do the numbers: Dodge in 20100 will have three teams, under Roger Penske, with Kurt Busch, project Sam Hornish, and rookie Brad Keselowski. Chevrolet now has 12 top teams, including Chip Ganassi's two. Do GM execs really need 12 teams? Do GM execs want to pay for 12 teams (engineering, tech, yada)? Is Dodge's Mike Accavitti going to be satisfied with only one legitimate championship contender next season? (And consider that Penske, despite being in NASCAR since 1971, has still never won a Cup championship.)

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