Tim Tuttle
Tuesday September 8th, 2009

Patience is a requirement in Sprint Cup, not an option. There are situations that call for racing as hard as you can for position, those when you ride and hold and those when you let somebody go. It has everything to do with how good your car is, keeping it under control and getting to the next pit stop to make it better.

Juan Pablo Montoya's attitude was completely contrary to that style when he arrived in NASCAR late in the 2006 season. The Colombian was raised to be a Formula One driver, which requires going flat-out all the time. Montoya made it in F1 for five and a half seasons, winning seven races by taking the attitude that nobody should ever be allowed to pass. He won championships in CART's Champ Car Series and Formula 3000 -- then F1's top development series -- and the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 the same way.

Cup was the next challenge, and Montoya was determined that he'd continue with what had worked. He was fast from the outset in his first full season in 2007, finishing fifth in the fourth race at Atlanta, and had a solid year, winding up 20th in the points and winning rookie of the year honors. But there were times when Montoya ignored the pleadings to temper his aggressiveness and pick his spots to race with that take-no-prisoners approach.

Montoya's second Cup season was a disappointment and undoubtedly made him reconsider his driving style. He fell to 25th in the points, his top-fives and top-10s went down and his DNFs went up to nine, mostly the result of too much aggression that put him in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong car.

Last winter brought significant changes to Montoya's team. Chip Ganassi Racing merged with DEI, and Montoya moved from Dodge to Chevrolet. He had a new teammate in Martin Truex Jr. Everything pointed to a transition year for Montoya, perhaps with more top-fives and top-10s, maybe top 20 in the points. Nobody picked him to make the Chase.

Montoya is on the verge from making the 10-race playoff, one more solid run at Richmond on Saturday night away from rewarding Chip Ganassi with his first Chase appearance. Montoya is eighth in the points, 88 in front of 13th-place Brian Vickers, and would basically clinch with a top 10.

Montoya's third place in the pressure cooker at Atlanta -- where he led 31 laps -- was his 12th top 12 in the past 16 races and 19th top 20 in 25 races. Most importantly, he doesn't have a DNF in 2009. Montoya has learned to race, Sprint Cup-style.

Before Atlanta, Montoya, then ninth in points, was asked if he'd be conservative in the final two regular season races.

"It isn't about being conservative, it is about being smart," Montoya said. "Everything we have done this year is making smart choices, when to race, when to get out of the gas, a lot of give and take and it makes life a lot better."

Get out of the gas? A lot of give and take? Those words weren't in Montoya's vocabulary before this season. He's made an amazing adjustment mentally. Top 10s have become the goal: Montoya has 12, plus four more inside the top 12.

Montoya's third at Atlanta was only his second top five. It showed resiliency by the driver and the team. He had finished 19th at Michigan and 25th at Bristol in the previous two races, both from flat tires. Montoya's best finish of the year was Pocono, the week after the severe disappointment of Indianapolis, where a speeding penalty cost him victory in the Brickyard 400.

Montoya was thinking about those flats at Michigan and Bristol on those double-file restarts at Atlanta.

"It's always kind of worrying," Montoya said. "Every restart you go, 'Please, nobody slide into me,' things like that. It was nice to see Kasey [Kahne] and Kevin [Harvick] and myself were the three fastest cars by a mile. Once you got in line, after the first corner, you knew you were fine."

Montoya was 10th at Richmond in early May. He'd never been better than 26th in four previous starts there in Cup.

"I think we have learned a lot for this Richmond race with the shaker rig and testing and stuff," Montoya said. "I think our cars have improved a lot, so we should run pretty good there."

Montoya's margin of error in the points won't change how he's approaching Richmond.

"But it just makes life easier," Montoya said. "Apart that we're eighth in points, we got 88...I think it's just big. They got to have a very good day and we got to have a terrible day. It still can happen. In the position we are in right now, it's just about go there, we have a great car for there, just be smart, get a top 10."

Montoya will make the Chase. He always had the speed and car control and now he knows how to use it.

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