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Montoya ready to make run at title

LOUDON, N.H. - Juan Pablo Montoya has a bottle of French wine at home that was given to him as a gift from a friend in Malaysia, who told the driver to save it for a very special occasion.

One problem: Montoya doesn't drink alcohol.

Should he become the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR championship, Montoya is willing to make an exception.

'It's a beautiful French wine,' he explained. 'I don't like wine. But I would drink that wine if we win.'

Don't pull the bottle opener out just yet - Montoya still has a long way to go in his quest for a Sprint Cup Series title. But the competition considers the Colombian the darkhorse of the 12-driver Chase for the championship field.

The 10-race title Chase begins today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Montoya will make the 100th start of his Cup career. It falls on his 34th birthday, and Montoya will start from the pole, which he won with a record-breaking lap. He also paced all three practice sessions, putting his No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet on top of the leaderboard all weekend.

Could the stars be aligning to send Montoya to Victory Lane for just the second time in the Cup Series since his stunning decision to leave Formula One?

He isn't saying.

But after crew chief Brian Pattie convinced him to spend the summer racing toward their goal of making their first Chase, Montoya is ready to run free and fast for wins.

When he left F1 midway through the 2006 season to reunite with former boss Chip Ganassi, Montoya didn't expect the transition to take so long. He had brief success in his 2007 rookie season, when he won on the road course at Sonoma, but the past three years have otherwise been a slow process toward making his No. 42 team competitive.

'We look at setups we run now compared to where we were a year ago and say, 'How could we be so dumb?' he laughed.

Montoya admits to fits of impatience as he waited for Ganassi to get his NASCAR team up to speed. He'd never really experienced a rebuilding effort, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship during his brief stint with Ganassi, then moving on to a successful F1 career.

And the emotional Montoya seemed happy in the globe-trotting series, despite his numerous run-ins with the governing body, other drivers and his own teams. In a 2005 interview with David Letterman, he tried in plain terms to explain the difference between his sleek F1 car and NASCAR's full-bodied stock car.

'This isn't meant to be disrespecting,' he smiled, 'have you ever driven a pickup truck and a Ferrari?'

He found out firsthand just a year later when, worn out by the politics of F1, he made the jump to America's most popular racing series.

Montoya learned quickly that his new job was rather hard. He was involved in a fiery accident in his 2006 debut at Homestead, and struggled the next season to adapt to the many different track layouts in NASCAR. The next year brought three crew chief changes in less than two months, and Montoya's frustration began to show.

'I think if you are patient about it, you are never going to achieve,' he said. 'You don't have to be a (jerk) about it, but if you want something done, you have to push people.'

It took a few months, but he and Pattie eventually bonded, and the crew chief sold him on a plan to make the Chase this season. It required Montoya to exercise patience and race smart in a constant effort to remember the big picture. Racing for wins became secondary, and it wasn't always easy for Montoya to hold back in his car.

He dominated at Indianapolis in July, but a late speeding penalty took him out of contention. It took an incredible effort from Pattie to calm Montoya down and get him to bring his car to the finish in one piece without making a second devastating move out of anger.

That afternoon was a pivotal moment in Montoya's season, because it saved him from falling out of Chase contention. His inclusion again shows that Montoya has succeeded at making it in NASCAR while so many other former open-wheel drivers have failed.

'I think Juan is the exception to the rule,' said two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, who won an IRL title before moving to stock cars. 'He is the guy that it doesn't matter what kind of car you throw him in, he is going to figure it out."