MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Juan Pablo Montoya was clearly the center of attention Thursday as Busch Series drivers prepared for NASCAR's third race in Mexico City.
The Colombian star who jumped from Formula One to NASCAR late last season gained a strong following in Mexico with Formula N victories back in the 1990s. Now the Mexican fans hope a fellow Latino might finally win a NASCAR race on their soil.
``Montoya heads the stars,'' roared the headline in Mexican daily Diario de Mexico in its preview for Sunday's Telcel-Motorola 200.
``It's an honor to be racing alongside a driver like Montoya, a Latino who has had so much success in racing,'' Mexico City native Jorge Goeters said. ``Montoya is a born champion.''
When NASCAR kick-started it's Mexico City event in 2005, much was made about the Mexican drivers' knowledge of the 2.518-mile Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course and experience racing at 7,400 feet, an altitude that gives the cars a little less downforce, robbing them of grip and horsepower.
The expectations for local drivers appeared to be playing out when Goeters stunned the field by winning the pole.
But Goeter's first NASCAR pit stop was a disaster and the final results looked a lot like any other Busch Series race, with Martin Truex Jr. using an early pit stop to outlast Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.
In the 2006 Mexico City event, Denny Hamlin won. Mexican driver Adrian Fernandez started in fourth and moved up a spot early, but had a minor crash, injuring his thumb, forcing him to settle for 12th.
Mexican driver Michel Jourdain has raced alongside Montoya at the Hermanos Rodriguez.
``He is a very good driver and he knows this track well,'' Jourdain said. ``Sooner or later, he is make his real impact in NASCAR.''
The curvy track was built for open-wheel racing and there is little opportunity to pass, except near the end of a tight straightaway.
But the track has seen some changes since Montoya was here last. A 1,000-foot long chicane that used to slow drivers on the opening stretch was taken out recently.
Robbie Weiss, NASCAR's managing director for international affairs, said Montoya brings in a lot of Mexican fans who are familiar with open-wheel racing.
``NASCAR is a brand just being introduced here, but every year it becomes more and more known,'' Weiss said. ``A big name like Montoya brings in the open wheel fans. And once people try this product they always discover they like it.''
Weiss said the three years of NASCAR in Mexico has not only helped increase support for NASCAR south of the border, but also in the United States.
Fernandez now appears in Spanish-language television commercials in the United States for car sponsor Lowe's, while Jourdain says he gets especially strong support in areas with big Latino communities such as California.
``We're building a bridge between the Mexican sporting community and the Latino community in the U.S.,'' Weiss said. ``Now you get people watching NASCAR at the Texas Motor Speedway while their relatives are watching it in Mexico City.''