Montoya Mixes It Up, On And Off Track

Tuesday, March 20th 2007, 2:41 pm

By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) There was little time to relax last weekend for Juan Pablo Montoya, who mixed his best on-track results with a gratifying visit with fans.

Buoyed by an 8th-place finish in the Busch Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Montoya awoke Sunday morning eager to duplicate the results. But first he had to visit his souvenir truck outside the race track.

Team officials had spent that morning inviting 100 random fans, who were shopping at his truck, to a 30-minute meet-and-greet with Montoya, who would sign whatever they bought.

"Most of the people were Latin, and I was pretty impressed with that," said the Colombian driver, adding he believes it proves his switch from Formula One to NASCAR is bringing new fans to the sport. "The thing was, we didn't even announce it. It was a surprise to the fans who were already there buying. I wanted to do something quiet, and when I got there it was really good. Some Americans, a lot of Latins and a couple of Colombians, and they all seemed to be new to NASCAR. It was good."

As was Sunday's race until a late debris caution that likely cost Montoya his first Nextel Cup victory. He was closing on the leaders before the caution and was believed to have the only car that could make it to the finish on fuel.

He settled for a 5th-place finish -- his best in Cup and on an oval -- and received high praise from other competitors.

"He blew my doors off," said 2003 champion Matt Kenseth said. "If they can give him a car that can contend, he's going to contend."

Montoya also was lauded by two-time champion Tony Stewart, who finished 2nd. It took Stewart seven starts before he notched his first top five at Atlanta.

"To be able to run that well here I didn't figure it out in one try by any means," said Stewart. "He did an awesome job."

Montoya is 15th in the Cup standings, 28 points behind 10th-place Carl Edwards. He leads the rookie of the year standings by one point over David Ragan and is the first driver to lead the Cup and Busch rookie standings simultaneously.

Montoya sat down for a short Q&A with AP Auto Racing Writer
Jenna Fryer:

Q: You finished eighth in the Busch race at Atlanta, and said that was a bigger deal to you than winning in Mexico City. How so?

JPM: "It's just huge. I think on the road course I was really expecting to do well, and when you expect to do well there are no surprises when you do. But the oval races, the first three Busch races this year were pretty tough. So to get a good result was huge. We were actually on pace with the leader for some time. It was just huge."

Q: Then what about the Cup race? Your best finish on an oval and in Cup.

JPM: "I think this was a good weekend. I think the next ones are going to be pretty hard. We've got Bristol (on Sunday) -- that's going to be a nightmare. Martinsville will probably be another tough one. Darlington, let's not even talk about that one. I'm getting comfortable with this one. I need to work on the other ones."

Q: Speaking of Darlington, you went there last week for the first time and got to participate in part of the Goodyear tire test. What did you think of NASCAR's oldest superspeedway?

JPM: "We just did about 30 laps on the tires to get me a feel for the track and make sure I don't get in the way when we return. It was important, because Darlington is the hardest thing I've done so far by a mile. It's just unbelievable how small the grip was."

Q: The Formula One season began last Saturday night with the Australian Grand Prix, and your former teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, won in a Ferrari. Did you watch it?

JPM: "No."

Q: Really? You had zero interest in it?

JPM: "I watched the start and then turned off the TV."

Q: That boring, huh?

JPM: "It's kind of predictable. It was over after the start. You know who is quick before the race even begins, so it's just all very predictable. You knew who was going to win the race, and now we know who is going to win the championship. It's going to come down to three drivers, and that's it. It will be a Ferrari or a McLaren. Quite boring."

Q: I understand Dustin Long of Landmark Newspapers picked you as the subject for one of his Esquire magazine-type interviews. It doesn't come out until Martinsville, but give me an idea of how it went?

JPM: "It was pretty cool. The questions were very different from the things you normally get asked, so it was cool."

Q: Yes, but didn't he ask you about the last time you cried?

JPM: "Oh yes. I don't remember the last time I cried. Probably back when (wife) Connie and I were boyfriend and girlfriend, many years ago. But I don't know. I hate, actually, people who cry."

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