The thought occurred, as the number 42 Chevy barged toward the front in the final laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday, that Juan Pablo Montoya just might do something, well ... untoward. This is a man, after all, who in his three seasons in NASCAR has earned a reputation for being a little too eager to trade paint, and who had speculated three days before the race that the majority of his peers still regard him as "that crazy Colombian."
Montoya, who turned 34 on the day of the race, had never really been in this position before, dueling for the lead with just two laps remaining—not in a Cup car, on an oval track. The former Indy Car champion and Formula One star has spent most of his Cup career as an also-ran, entering the New Hampshire race, his Chase debut, with just seven top five finishes and a road-course win to his credit. How far was he willing to go to reach Victory Lane?
There was no need to worry. When race leader Mark Martin slowed for an instant entering the first turn on the penultimate lap, he halted Montoya's momentum, then zoomed out to a comfortable advantage. It was an effective bit of gamesmanship from the 29-year veteran, but NASCAR's loosest cannon didn't go off. Showing a sense of perspective that has increasingly been the hallmark of his breakthrough season, Montoya simply slowed with Martin, then kept digging to a third-place finish that catapulted him from 11th in the Chase to fourth, with nine races to go. Afterward he hinted that if Martin (who leads the standings) tried such a gambit again, he just might put him into the wall, but then Montoya admitted with a smile that he "would have done the same thing" had he been in Martin's position.
The ironic twist is that Montoya's mellowing is largely the result of his relationship with the 50-year-old Martin. In the days leading up to the race, Montoya told reporters how, in the last three years, he has often sought out the veteran driver for guidance. "Mark's an open book with me," Montoya said. He's learned from Martin how to give people racing room on the track. This has been not only Montoya's most successful Cup season to date, but also his cleanest—he's finished every race so far, after racking up 14 DNFs in his previous 73 starts.
His relationship with his team is better than ever, too. According to crew chief Brian Pattie, Montoya—who comes as close to being a diva as any driver in NASCAR—has committed himself this season to turning more practice laps. The result is that his cars have been better than ever. "I look at the setups we run now compared to where we were a year ago," Montoya says, "and I think, How could we have been so dumb?"
Indeed, Montoya had the fastest car all weekend at New Hampshire, setting the pace in every practice session, winning the pole with a track-record time on Friday and leading a race-high 105 laps on Sunday. Pattie says he expects more of the same in the coming weeks—he and his crew have built three new cars for the first three legs of the Chase. "We're not bringing out our best car, the one we almost won with at Indy, until the fourth race," he says.
In other words, Montoya isn't likely to fade anytime soon. And he still has his crazy side. Gentlemen, watch your fenders.
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Cup analysis by Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus