Thursday June 18th, 2009

Don't look now, but Juan Pablo Montoya is currently 14th in the Sprint Cup standings, just 43 points out of the 12th and final spot in the Chase. He's also one of the hotter drivers on the circuit, having run off two straight top-10 finishes, giving him four in his past six races. In other words, NASCAR's highest-profile open-wheel convert could be on the verge of making a major jump in the standings with a victory this weekend on the road course at Sonoma, the sight of his first career Cup win and one of his favorite tracks on the circuit.

I've written already this year of Montoya's impressive progress in his two-plus years in NASCAR. And it seems clear now that, were he on one of the top teams in the sport -- say, Joe Gibbs Racing or Roush Fenway -- he would be a championship contender. He's been fast this year on superspeedways (he won his first career pole at Talladega), short tracks (he finished ninth at Bristol) and intermediate ovals (he ran eighth at Charlotte last month). He has even mastered the triangle at Pocono (eighth-place) and the D-shaped route at Michigan (sixth).

In short, if there's a dark horse to benefit from the decline this season of Richard Childress Racing -- Jeff Burton's 12th-place ranking is the team's highest -- it might just be Montoya. Granted, he'd have to muscle his way past David Reutimann, who sits just ahead of him in the standings, and who is enjoying a breakout season of his own. Both drivers are nearly indistinguishable this season -- Montoya's average finish is 15.8, which is identical to his rival's.

But if there's a problem for Montoya, it's in the fact that he's led only 11 laps in 2009. Reutimann has been up front for 72 laps, and seems more often to have a car capable of running in the top five (Montoya has yet to finish better than sixth). If the Colombian former F1 star is to have a shot to make the Chase this year, then he's going to have to maintain his current level of performance. Speed and versatility are just part of the package in Cup racing. Consistency is huge. And only if Montoya has mastered that aspect of the sport will he be able to make a jump to the next level.

3: Points that separate 12th-place driver Jeff Burton and 13th-place driver David Reutimann in the Cup standings

5: Number of top-10 finishes for Burton at Sonoma in 15 starts

40: Finishing position for Reutimann in his only race at Sonoma, in 2008

Ah, the life of a beauty queen...well, a corporate beauty queen, but a beauty queen nonetheless. Here, courtesy of the racing fans at All Left Turns, is a photo essay detailing the exploits of the lovely Anne-Marie Rhodes, one of the two Miss Sprint Cups who appear at every event on the series schedule.

Anne-Marie's duties are primarily in the public relations capacity. She poses for pictures, signs autographs and, generally, puts a pleasant face on a sharp-edged sport that's made out of gears and metal.

Oh, and she also appears in Victory Lane with race winners. I'm working on a story for the magazine this week on driver Brad Keselowski, and during my research, I came across this photo, which was taken after his triumph at Talladega last April.

Bottom line: It ain't all glamour, girls.

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