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Pattie saves Montoya's day at Indy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Brian Pattie doesn't really come to mind when listing NASCAR's best crew chiefs, a distinction probably reserved for guys like Chad Knaus, Greg Zipadelli, or maybe even Alan Gusatafson.

Pattie doesn't have their wins, championships or reputations. He doesn't have their big budgets or their unlimited resources.

What Pattie does have is Juan Pablo Montoya, and on Sunday, he might have single-handedly saved his season.

Montoya had the field covered at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he led 116 laps while building a five-second lead over the competition. Then he was caught speeding on his final pit stop of the day, and the penalty with 35 laps to go ended his chance at a monumental victory at The Brickyard.

Simply put, Montoya melted down.

He ranted and raved, insisted he wasn't speeding and directed his missives directly at NASCAR. He blamed president Mike Helton for an errant call, criticized chairman Brian France and moaned that he should simply park his car and call it a day.

Pattie didn't flinch.

He coddled and cajoled, urged his hot-tempered driver to calm down and fretted that Montoya was inching dangerously close to the kind of language that usually lands a team in very hot water with NASCAR. Pattie knew the opportunity for his first Sprint Cup Series win - at Indy, of all places! - had just slipped away. But with his thumb at the ready to key the mic in case of an emergency need to drown out Montoya, he eased his driver off the ledge.

It was critical they not throw away the entire day, and Montoya not halfheartedly complete the closing laps or, in a kamikaze effort to race back toward the front, do something stupid that resulted in a horrendous finish.

They wound up 11th - disappointing, but not terrible - and gained points on the 13th-place driver in the standings.

Because staying inside the top 12 and making the Chase for the championship is all that really matters to Pattie.

'I have to pay attention to the big picture, even if Juan veers off once in a while like yesterday,' Pattie said Monday from the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing shop, where he was looking over data before 7 a.m.

'I understand this game and how it's played, and I know the facts and how important a win would have been to Juan, to the team, to (sponsor) Target. I was totally upset, but it's my job to not flip out and remember what we're trying to do.'

Pattie has been on a mission to make the Chase for the better part of a year. He's Montoya's third crew chief in three seasons since leaving Formula One, and took over at a time Ganassi was again overhauling his NASCAR organization in an effort to catch-up to the industry leaders.

Even if Montoya is one of the best drivers, adapting to stock cars and ultimately finding success was not going to happen without an overhaul of attitude and ideas. Besides improving the organization, Pattie needed his driver to trust him, to follow a plan and race smart.

He needed him to think more like Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin, and less like the guy who played chicken with Michael Schumacher and never flinched. The Montoya from open-wheel earned a reputation as an all-or-nothing racer who easily rattled, a style that would never get him anywhere in the points-racing world of NASCAR.

Somehow, he's gotten Montoya to buy into the plan.

Currently 10th in the standings, Montoya has been points racing all season and refused to chase a better finishing position at the detriment of an acceptable afternoon. It goes against everything he's ever believed, but it's working.

'Is it?' Pattie wondered Monday. 'I mean, you'd have to ask him if he's bought into it.'

See, Montoya erred Sunday, when maybe he was looking for the end zone before catching the pass. He made a mistake akin to missing the game-sealing free throw when he was caught speeding, by an electronic system that doesn't play favorites.

There's an allotted 5 mph cushion on pit road, where the speed limit Sunday was 55 mph. Montoya wasn't going to 56, or 57 or even 58 mph on that final stop. The printed results, which Pattie has seen, showed 60.06 mph in one spot and 60.11 in another.

Montoya was adamant he didn't speed, a contention he still believed Monday, when he said he believed it was his slowest trip down pit road all day.

Pattie said the system doesn't lie, and instead planned to examine Monday if his equipment gave Montoya an inaccurate reading.

'It's not like the old days, you don't worry about NASCAR saying 'We're going to look the other way for that guy,' or 'I'm going to screw that guy,' he said. 'It's pretty black-and-white and I think the system they have is foolproof.'

So is Pattie's.

He studied 10 years of results before this season, when he figured out just what the No. 42 team had to do to make the Chase. He knew where Montoya needed to improve, and by just how much, to put together numbers Pattie believes will get them into the championship race.

His plan covered the first 26 races, and he's certain 'we won't fail, we'll be there.' But there's the final 10 races this year that Pattie has yet to put into his plan, because while winning the championship is the ultimate goal, earning an invitation was the first and more pressing hurdle.

'A win would have been huge for us,' Pattie said. 'But we want to be able to run with Hendrick Motorsports. And we did that.'