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SPRINT CUP

Juan Pablo Montoya ready to ride free

After exercising patience to ensure his inclusion in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Colombian driver starts from the pole as the 12-driver competition begins Sunday in New Hampshire.

September 20, 2009|Associated Press

LOUDON, N.H. — Juan Pablo Montoya has a bottle of French wine at home that was given to him as a gift from a friend in Malaysia, who told the driver to save it for a very special occasion.

One problem: Montoya doesn't drink alcohol.

Should he become the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR championship, Montoya is willing to make an exception.

"It's a beautiful French wine," he explained. "I don't like wine. But I would drink that wine if we win."

Don't pull the bottle opener out just yet -- Montoya still has a long way to go in his quest for a Sprint Cup Series title. But the competition considers the Colombian the dark horse of the 12-driver Chase for the Cup field.

The 10-race title Chase begins today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Montoya will make the 100th start of his Cup career. It falls on his 34th birthday, and Montoya will start from the pole, which he won with a record-breaking lap. He also paced all three practice sessions, putting his No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet on top of the leaderboard all weekend.

Could the stars be aligning to send Montoya to Victory Lane for only the second time in the Cup Series since his stunning decision to leave Formula One? He isn't saying.

But after crew chief Brian Pattie convinced him to spend the summer racing toward their goal of making their first Chase, Montoya is ready to run free and fast for wins.

When he left F1 midway through the 2006 season to reunite with former boss Chip Ganassi, Montoya didn't expect the transition to take so long. He had brief success in his 2007 rookie season, when he won on the road course at Sonoma, but the last three years have otherwise been a slow process toward making his team competitive.

"We look at setups we run now compared to where we were a year ago and say, 'How could we be so dumb?' " he said with a laugh.

It took a few months, but he and Pattie eventually bonded, and the crew chief sold him on a plan to make the Chase this season. It required Montoya to exercise patience and race smart in a constant effort to remember the big picture. Racing for wins became secondary, and it wasn't always easy for Montoya to hold back in his car.

"We got to a point where we are competitive," he said. "But what's next? What are we doing next to make ourselves better?"

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