Montoya Gets First Win

When team owner Chip Ganassi first came up with the thought of luring Juan Pablo Montoya back to America from Formula One, it was days like this that he had in mind.

Montoya used his well-honed road-racing skill to save his tires and stretch his fuel Sunday, winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway for his first NASCAR Nextel Cup victory.

``One of the nice things, working with him again, is he's matured in a way as a race driver that you could not write in a movie,'' said Ganassi, for whom Montoya won the 1999 CART championship and the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

``He's a lot calmer, if you can imagine that. He actually came on the radio today and said, 'It's a little too early to race these guys.' I was looking at (crew chief Donnie) Wingo and he was looking at me. Juan's a changed man, all in a positive way.''

The NASCAR rookie, who qualified a disappointing 32nd in the 43-car field, was the first driver to win on the Northern California road circuit starting further back than 13th.

Montoya, who jumped from Formula One to the stock car circuit late last season, got his first Cup win in his 17th start and, more important, gave Ganassi his first win in NASCAR's top series since Jamie McMurray won in October 2002.

``It's huge,'' Montoya said. ``I would say right now it's the biggest thing I've done. In open-wheel, that's what I was meant to be winning in. In stock cars, I wasn't.

``To get our first win in our first year is huge. We know we're a little bit behind on some of the ovals, but I think this is a big boost for everybody working in the shop.''

Montoya and his team came into this race struggling. He had not finished higher than 20th since an eighth-place finish at Texas in April, falling from 13th to 23rd in the points during that span.

``Juan's been through a lot of rough and tumble things the last year since that fateful date when we first talked about this,'' Ganassi said. ``I don't want to say I ever had any doubts, but once in a while a little doubt does creep in the back of your mind.

``This guy next to me (Montoya) never flinched, never once. He didn't have anything but winning on his mind, and that's what's great about him. The fire still burns in his belly to be in the front.''

Series points leader Jeff Gordon overcame a 41st-place start to finish just behind Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart in seventh with a strategic effort in the first road race for NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow.

Gordon, who became a father for the first time Wednesday when his daughter, Ella Sofia, was born, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, were both banned from practice and qualifying on Friday and had to start from the rear of the field after NASCAR inspectors found their cars had illegally modified front fenders.

Both drivers and their crew chiefs face more penalties from NASCAR in the next few days, but they ran hard to overcome their handicapped start Sunday. Johnson's fuel strategy didn't work as well as Gordon's and, after getting into the top 10 for a while, he finished 17th.

Montoya, whose only other NASCAR victory came earlier this year in a Busch Series race on the road course in Mexico City, passed McMurray, who now drives for Roush Fenway Racing, on the 104th of 110 laps on the 1.99-mile, 12-turn course.

Montoya was running third, trailing McMurray and Kevin Harvick and desperately conserving fuel with 18 laps to go. But he passed Harvick on lap 92 and began to track down McMurray.

``What really paid off at the end was I was just running behind Kevin, saving the tires and trying to keep up with him,'' Montoya said. ``I did that for 10, 15 laps and I started pushing, I started making up ground on them and that's when everything fell into place.''

The winner got past McMurray for a moment on lap 102, driving his Dodge past McMurray's Ford in the slow hairpin near the end of the circuit. But Montoya got too wide and McMurray was able to squeeze by.

The pass that counted came two laps later, with Montoya getting under McMurray's car and passing easily. This time, he stayed out front.

``I saw he was always hugging that corner and I thought, 'This is it.' I knew I could pass him there,'' Montoya said.

Wingo said his calculations told him Montoya would run out of fuel about a lap from the end.

``We had to play a little bit of catch-up, so we had to take a gamble there at the end,'' Wingo said. ``He did a great job on saving fuel, everybody did a good job on the stops, and the motor shop did a great job. Without the fuel mileage we'd have never made it.''

McMurray ran out of gas at the start of lap 109 and finished 37th while Montoya saved enough fuel to run a cool-down lap and do a victory burnout before his fuel light came on.

Harvick inherited second place when McMurray slowed. He was followed across the finish line by Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, who also got great fuel mileage.

Harvick, who appeared to be getting the best mileage of all, thought he might have the race won when McMurray slowed and Montoya was short-shifting to save gas late in the race.

``They came on the radio and told me you've got 20 laps to make up one lap of fuel and the two cars in front of you are both three laps short,'' Harvick said. ``That's how we played it and (Montoya) didn't run out of gas.''

Harvick wasn't surprised that he was chasing Montoya at the end.

``I've been a big fan of Montoya's since he came over,'' Harvick said. ``He's a great road racer, but he wasn't the fastest. The strategy won it for him today.''

Robby Gordon, who started alongside pole-winner McMurray, also was a victim of failed strategy after leading a race-high 48 laps. He finished 16th.

Reed Sorenson spun out on lap 67, bringing out the last of full-course caution flags. While Robby Gordon and several other leaders gambled and stayed on track, opting to pit later under green, Montoya and other contenders made their final stops under the yellow flag on lap 68.

Montoya came out of that stop 12th but moved steadily forward as the drivers ahead of him began to make their gas stops. He was third by lap 78, setting up the dramatic finish.

by Michael Cash - - Email Us

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