Friday September 25th, 2009

I wrote this week for the magazine about the sudden rise of Juan Pablo Montoya to within driving distance of the top spot in the Chase. His third-place showing at New Hampshire last Sunday, which saw him lead a race-high 105 laps, capped off a weekend during which he won the pole in record time, had the fastest car at all three practice sessions and, memorably, walked out on a television interview.

Montoya's journey to this point has not just been about him learning to drive heavier, bulkier stock cars after spending his entire career in sleek open-wheel machines. According to Brian Pattie, the crew chief for the number 42 team, Montoya was ready to start winning on oval tracks (he'd already won on the road course at Sonoma as a Cup rookie in 2007) last season. But his equipment wasn't up to scratch. Put Jimmie Johnson in the cars JPM was piloting last year, and he likely wouldn't have done much better in the Cup standings than Montoya's overall ranking of 25th.

But to get such cars, the former F/1 star still had work to do. According to Pattie, Montoya has never been crazy about turning practice laps, a problem that severely limited the data that his crew had to work from when setting up his car. Before the season began, Pattie says he "convinced" Montoya that if he wanted to contend for a championship, he was going to have to turn laps with nothing more on the line than data collection.

Lo and behold, his cars got dramatically better. So much better that a few days before the Chase, Montoya told a group of reporters that all he could think now was, "How could we be so dumb?"

Montoya spent most of his season working on securing a spot in the Chase. With that mission accomplished, he has been turned loose in his faster machines to go for victories. He and Pattie debuted a hot new car at Loudon last weekend, and they will bring out two more for each of the next two races (at Dover and Kansas). Only then will they get to their fastest car of the season, the one that Montoya nearly drove to Victory Lane at Indy last July.

Montoya openly admits that he's not sure if he's ready as a driver to win a championship. But he's getting there. In his head and in his race shop. It's hard to believe he won't be back for another Chase in 2010.

4: Number of wins at Dover for both points-leader Mark Martin and second-place Jimmie Johnson

46: Number of starts at Dover for Martin

15: Number of starts at Dover for Johnson

I'm sure everybody's seen this, but it's just too cool on too many different levels for me not to re-visit. During last weekend's race at New Hampshire, Kurt Busch, pulling out of his pit box, spun David Ragan into his pit box. Take a look.

Anybody remember that line from Seinfeld? "A million to one shot, doc. A million to one shot."

And how in the wide, wide world of sports did nobody get hurt? There are crew members from several teams swarming all around. And kudos to Ragan's team for figuring out so quickly who should go where. It was like the mirror-image of a normal pit stop.

I know you see something different every week, but I really think it's going to be a long, long time before we see anything like this again. Neat stuff.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.