SONOMA, Calif. – The first trip to Infineon Raceway was a pressure-packed, must-win race for Juan Pablo Montoya.
Considered one of the best road racers in the world, everyone in NASCAR knew it was his best opportunity to win in a stock car. He pulled it off, overcoming a horrible qualifying effort to drive through the field and win in 2007, his first season in NASCAR after jumping from Formula One.
Two years later, the urgency to win Sunday’s race is gone for Montoya, replaced but an even bigger goal: making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
That means Montoya, who is 14th in the standings and just 43 points away from claiming one of the 12 Chase spots, won’t push the limits in pursuit of a win. He’ll instead settle for solid finishes that improve his position in pursuit of the Chase.
“I will Chase race,” Montoya said about his strategy for the next 11 races. “Surprising, isn’t it?”
Not to crew chief Brian Pattie, who said Montoya’s been “Chase racing” this entire season. Montoya’s been so solid, Pattie can rattle off the top of his head the few mistakes Montoya has made this year.
“He’s been really smart all year, except for something with (Jamie) McMurray at Bristol, he’s been very smooth,” Pattie said. “He was caught speeding on pit road at Phoenix, but had the fastest lap right before that. He’s just been good all year, and we can’t change what we’re doing now. We’ve been racing for the Chase this whole time, and that’s not going to change.”
To do it, Pattie believes Montoya needs to raise his average finishing position from 15.8 last season to 14th or better this year.
“We do that, we’re in,” Pattie said.
Montoya will start 17th today but isn’t concerned about the traffic he’ll have to maneuver on his way toward the front. He won from the 32nd starting spot in 2007. He started 21st last year and finished sixth after he was spun by Marcos Ambrose while running second with roughly 20 laps to go.