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When the green flag drops at Daytona International Speedway this Sunday, it will not only signal the start of the Daytona 500 but also wave in a series of landmark debuts in NASCAR this season. Toyota will become the first foreign manufacturer on American racing's premier circuit (page 64); a new design of stock car, dubbed the Car of Tomorrow, will take to the track in March (gatefold, page 69); a new Chase for the Cup format will put two additional drivers in the title hunt in September (box, page 62); and NASCAR itself will switch lanes, moving from NBC/TNT to ESPN and ABC for the final 17 races of the year.
As for the most significant arrival in 2007, NASCAR fans got a preview last fall beginning with an ARCA series race on Oct. 6 at Talladega Superspeedway. When the 5'8", 160-pound driver Juan Pablo Montoya strolled into the garage and up to his number 4 Dodge Charger, a dozen cameras flashed as he pulled on his gloves. Six video cameras whirred as he planted a kiss on the lips of his wife, Connie. More than 50 sets of eyes watched as he lifted himself into the cockpit. It was only a race in the NASCAR equivalent of Double A ball, but it was one of the most anticipated stock car runs in recent memory--and no one was more anxious than 62-year-old Pablo Montoya, who stood just a few feet away from his son.
"Juan Pablo has come so far in his career," said Pablo. "I used to race go-karts at a road course in Bogot� [ Colombia, his native country], and after the races five-year-old Juan Pablo would be waiting for me. I'd pick him up, put him in my lap and then go back out on the track. I'd let him steer while I controlled the pedals. I challenged him and went very fast, probably around 100 mph. We spun out a lot, but that was O.K. because he was learning."
On this day Juan Pablo, 31, started second in the Food World 250 and quickly moved to his first lead in a stock car. For eight laps, in front of 5,000 fans (including a smattering of Colombians), he paced the field on the 2.66-mile track. By Lap 36 Montoya had been shuffled back to 10th, and as he rumbled into Turn 3, the car driven by Bryan Silas suddenly spun out of control and slammed hard into the right side of Montoya's, sending the number 4 Dodge into a slide at 180 mph.
This was the moment that Montoya's car owner, Chip Ganassi, had been waiting for. Ganassi wanted to see if Montoya could save his car from crashing after being bumped--a situation Montoya had rarely experienced while driving on the Formula One circuit the last 5 1/2 years. In a heartbeat Ganassi got his answer. With a few yanks on the steering wheel, Montoya steadied his car and kept it from smashing into the wall. It was an exhilarating display of reflexes and car control, and though Montoya had dropped to 36th place, he was still in the hunt for the checkered flag.
"You having any fun yet?" Ganassi said jokingly over the radio from the pit.
"Yes, I'm having fun," Montoya replied. "Little bit freaky. Some of the guys move around a lot."
From the back of the field Montoya started passing cars, taking the high line and the low line, riding the draft as if he could see the flow of air streaming over his hood. Slicing through traffic, he bump-drafted past his new rivals and nudged a few more out of the way. With 14 laps to go, Montoya had battled his way to third place only to have the race called because of darkness. In his first stock car outing he passed about 50 cars, which was more than he passed in his F/1 career. "That was the most fun I've ever had in a race car," he said, grinning, after sliding out from behind the wheel. "I think I'm going to like this NASCAR thing."
As the private jet taxied on the runway at Napa Airport, in the heart of California wine country last June, Ganassi sat in a plush cabin seat chatting with a friend. His cellphone rang. It was Montoya, who had driven for Ganassi in the CART series from 1998 through 2000, calling to say hello from Montreal, where he was preparing for the Canadian Grand Prix.
Racing first for BMW Williams and then for McLaren Mercedes on the F/1 circuit, the most popular racing series worldwide, Montoya had in five seasons won seven Grands Prix and earned more than $50 million on and off the track. In a sport dominated for a decade by the German driver Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari team, Montoya was viewed as an aggressive, risk-taking driver with a rare instinct for passing on the demanding winding road courses through cities and countryside. His name and mischievous smile were known from Canada to Monaco to Bahrain and China.