Montoya Ready For Daytona 500 Debut

Saturday, February 17th 2007, 2:46 pm
By: News On 6

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Juan Pablo Montoya led 18 laps in an exhibition race at Daytona, and that was a bad thing.

After powering his way to the front, a mechanical problem ended Montoya's day before he had a chance to work in heavy traffic _ leaving him fairly untested for Sunday's Daytona 500.

The former Formula One star could have used Saturday's Busch Series race as a cram session, but his motor failed after just 25 laps. Now he enters NASCAR's biggest race with just a fraction of the track time he expected.

Worse, his Chip Ganassi Racing team has a new worry: The durability of its motors after two failures this week. Reed Sorenson's engine blew during a Thursday qualifying race.

Ganassi wasn't concerned, saying the failures in the Nextel Cup and Busch motors were unrelated.

``Our cars are good. Our engines are good,'' he said.

Montoya gets a chance to prove it when he starts 36th in Sunday's race, the kickoff for his heralded first NASCAR season.

He was expected to have an intense spotlight on him during the 11 days of Speedweeks, but it was dimmed by a cheating scandal that snared five different teams.

It gave Montoya a bit of peace _ at least until the international media arrived. At least a dozen cameras followed the Colombian this weekend as he found himself conducting interview sessions in English and Spanish, and fielding phone calls from all over Europe.

``It's pretty cool, you know?'' Montoya said.

Yes and no.

NASCAR is basking in the crossover appeal into the Hispanic market that Montoya creates, and it's a boon to sponsor Texaco-Havoline and manufacturer Dodge.

Yet all the attention can create intense pressure for a driver who, despite his open-wheel accomplishments, is expected to take some lumps in NASCAR.

``I think I am going to disappoint a lot of reporters because I don't really read too much,'' he said. ``I look at the pictures, but I try not to read too much about what people say because you need to focus on what you are doing.

``You cannot build in your mind 'Oh, they say I am great so I am great.' No, you are great because you drive great. But you still need to prove yourself on the race track.''

Montoya could do that Sunday with a win in NASCAR's Super Bowl of racing. A victory would put Montoya's name next to Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt as the only drivers to win the two most prestigious races in the United States _ the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.

Although no rookie has won the 500, Montoya proved to be a quick study last month when he helped his Ganassi team to a win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the most prestigious sports car event in North America.

That victory put Montoya in the record books, where he joined Andretti as the only drivers to win the Indianapolis 500, a CART title, a Formula One race and the Daytona sports car endurance event.

Ganassi has been pleased with Montoya's quick adaptation to the cars, and how easily he moved into a mentor role for Sorenson and fellow teammate David Stremme.

``Even with Juan's lack of knowledge with these cars, he's ascended quickly to a leader with our young guys.'' Ganassi said. ``He still has the maturity of a veteran driver, and he's got his arm around these young guys bringing them on.''

Montoya's presence also has sparked a team that has not won a race since the 2002 season. But all three Ganassi cars have been strong during Speedweeks, and Montoya isn't convinced he won't win Sunday.

The improvement is obvious, but Montoya won't take all the credit.

``I think the team is really pumped up, but the team was coming this way with or without me,'' he said. ``When we go to the next few races, that's when my real learning curve will begin.''