Juan helluva Chase awaits

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:04 PM ET

It is simply amazing at the number of alleged experts who are shocked that Juan Pablo Montoya is among the top-three drivers going into Rd. 3 of the 10-round Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

It was expected that this would be the "I'm just happy to be here" Chase season for the Colombian-born Indy 500 and former Formula One winner. It is, after all, only Montoya's third season in NASCAR.

And he came into 2009 with a merged team -- Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- that had been fraught with failure and frustration in its most recent past. There was lots of talk, in fact, that Montoya should have been looking around for a new team -- one that could give him a car to match his enormous racing talent.

Much had been made of Montoya's history of impatience that had been a trademark for him in open wheel racing; a characteristic many blamed for his fall from grace with the McLaren Mercedes F-1 team.

But here is Montoya now 65 points back of Mark Martin and just 55 points back of everybody's pick-to-win Jimmie Johnson as NASCAR heads to Kansas Speedway this week.

All due respect to the legions of Martin fans out there, the race to the final event at Homestead-Miami looks more and more like a Johnson-Montoya battle right down to the final lap.

Four of the eight races left on the calendar are 1.5-mile ovals -- Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead -- tracks that are bread and butter events for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Montoya, however, isn't the least bit intimidated by the competition. His top-five finishes at New Hampshire and Dover have emboldened the No. 42 Chevrolet team.

"To have two top fives in two Chase races is huge, but I guess it's not enough," Montoya said after the Dover race. "I can't complain. We do what we can. Last week I finished third, this week fourth, where last time we were fastest than everybody in practice. This week we were second in everything, so at least we're running good."

He looks at his top-10 finish earlier this year at Chicagoland Speedway -- a twin track to Kansas -- as impetus for the EGR program, even though he is all too aware that Johnson has collected 20 of his 44-career Cup wins on those eighth final tracks.

"The next three or four tracks are the best for the 48," Montoya said. "If you can do a pretty good damage control there, or if you can even take some points away from him, it would be huge."

Should Montoya end up mano-a-mano with Johnson it would also be a huge boost for -- so far -- the disappointing TV ratings for the Chase.

Bungling Bernie

Maybe this time F-1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has crossed a line that will -- deservedly -- cost him his perch atop the would's most expensive racing series.

The tiny tyrant has been giving interviews across Europe emphasising his displeasure at the lifetime banishment his old pal Flavio Briatore got from the FIA for fixing the Singapore Grand Prix last season.

Ecclestone suggested that Briatore "had been over-punished" for his part in the cheating scandal.

The words were no sooner out of Ecclestone's mouth than Sir Martin Sorrell -- who just happens to sit on the board of CVC Capital Partners that employs Ecclestone to operate F-1 -- expressed his shock.

Sorrell lashed out at his employee, saying Ecclestone was "out of touch with reality".

It was the second time this season -- the first when Ecclestone said he admired Adolf Hitler for the way "he could get things done" -- that Sorell has expressed his extreme disappointment at the management style of the 78-year-old Briton.

Previously viewed as bullet-proof, Ecclestone could well have signed his own resignation letter with his defence of Briatore.

For F-1, however, it could be just the balsam the series needs to shed itself of the scandal, upon scandal, upon scandal that has plagued it over the past decade.

Finish lines

Paul Menard has denied he will sign with Richard Childress Racing for next season to replace Casey Mears in the No. 07 Chevrolet. Booze company Jack Daniels won't be back with RCR and Menard brings his dad's department store sponsorship with him where ever he goes. Menard Jr. apparently is not sold on the idea that his current team -- Yates Racing -- will get better with an in-the-works merger with Richard Petty Motorsports ... Former CART and Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran will race his final competitive laps in the American Le Mans Series at California's Laguna Seca ... Goodyear plans to test a new larger -- 17 inch-- tire next week at Richmond International Raceway. "The longitudinal grip improves the forward and back motion while the lateral grip helps with cornering," Greg Stucker, Goodyear race tire boss, told Fox Sports. Goodyear also will test a car using the current 15-inch tire to use as a baseline to compare the two tires.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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