6-24-07 -- Juan Pablo Montoya might be a NASCAR rookie, but he is a road-course master.
Not known for his patience, the Colombian driver showed plenty of it Sunday. He used his well-honed road-racing skill to save his tires, stretch his fuel to the limit, and win the Toyota/Save Mart 350 for his first NASCAR Nextel Cup victory.
Team owner Chip Ganassi, who lured Montoya back to America from Formula One, was as impressed as anyone by the win and the way Montoya did it.
``One of the nice things, working with him again, is he's matured in a way as a race driver that you could not write in a movie,'' said Ganassi, for whom Montoya won the 1999 CART championship and the 2000 Indianapolis 500.
``He's a lot calmer, if you can imagine that. He actually came on the radio today and said, 'It's a little too early to race these guys.' I was looking at (crew chief Donnie) Wingo and he was looking at me. Juan's a changed man, all in a positive way.''
Montoya, who qualified a disappointing 32nd in the 43-car field, was the first driver to win on the Northern California road circuit starting further back than 13th.
Montoya, who jumped from Formula One to the stock car circuit late last season, got his first Cup win in his 17th start and gave Ganassi his first win in NASCAR's top series since Jamie McMurray won in October 2002.
``It's huge,'' Montoya said. ``I would say right now it's the biggest thing I've done. In open-wheel, that's what I was meant to be winning in. In stock cars, I wasn't.
``To get our first win in our first year is huge. We know we're a little bit behind on some of the ovals, but I think this is a big boost for everybody working in the shop.''
Series points leader Jeff Gordon overcame a 41st-place start to finish just behind Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart in seventh with a strategic effort in the first road race for NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow.
Gordon, who became a father for the first time Wednesday when his daughter, Ella Sofia, was born, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, were both banned from practice and qualifying on Friday and had to start from the rear of the field after NASCAR inspectors found their cars had illegally modified front fenders.
Both drivers and their crew chiefs face more penalties from NASCAR in the next few days, but they ran hard to overcome their handicapped start Sunday. Johnson's fuel strategy didn't work as well as Gordon's and, after getting into the top 10 for a while, he finished 17th.
Montoya, whose only other NASCAR victory came earlier this year in a Busch Series race on the road course in Mexico City, passed McMurray, who now drives for Roush Fenway Racing, eight laps from the end. He easily stayed in front of runner-up Kevin Harvick in the 110-lap event on the 1.99-mile, 12-turn course.
``I was very surprised by the level of the drivers here on the road course,'' Montoya said. ``In Mexico, we had a really good car and the top five cars were really strong. But, behind that, it was really easy.''
Montoya was running third, trailing leader McMurray and Harvick and desperately conserving fuel with 18 laps to go. But he passed Harvick on lap 92 and began to track down McMurray.
``The top 20 was really like, phew. You had to work for your money,'' he said. ``What really paid off at the end was I was just running behind Kevin, saving the tires and trying to keep up with him. I did that for 10, 15 laps and I started pushing, I started making up ground on them and that's when everything fell into place.''
The winner got past McMurray for a moment on lap 102, driving his Dodge past McMurray's Ford in the slow hairpin near the end of the circuit. But Montoya got too wide and McMurray was able to squeeze by.
The pass that counted came in turn two on lap 104, with Montoya getting under McMurray's car and passing easily. This time, he stayed out front.
``I saw he was always hugging that corner and I thought, 'This is it.' I knew I could pass him there,'' Montoya said.
Wingo said his calculations told him Montoya would run out about a lap short of the end.
``We had to play a little bit of catch-up, so we had to take a gamble there at the end,'' Wingo said. ``He did a great job on saving fuel, everybody did a good job on the stops, and the motor shop did a great job. Without the fuel mileage we'd have never made it.''
McMurray ran out of gas at the start of lap 109 and finished 37th while Montoya saved enough fuel to run a cool-down lap and do a victory burnout before his fuel light came on.
Harvick inherited second place when McMurray slowed. He was followed across the finish line by his Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, who also got great fuel mileage.
Harvick, who appeared to be getting the best mileage of all, thought he might have the race won when McMurray slowed and Montoya was short-shifting to save gas late in the race.
``They came on the radio and told me you've got 20 laps to make up one lap of fuel and the two cars in front of you are both three laps short,'' Harvick said. ``That's how we played it and (Montoya) didn't run out of gas.''
Harvick wasn't surprised that he was chasing Montoya at the end.
``I've been a big fan of Montoya's since he came over,'' Harvick said. ``He's a great road racer, but he wasn't the fastest. The strategy won it for him today.''
Robby Gordon, who started alongside pole-winner McMurray, also was a victim of failed strategy after leading a race-high 48 laps. He finished 16th.
Reed Sorenson spun out on lap 67, bringing out the last of full-course caution flags. While Robby Gordon and several other leaders gambled and stayed on track, opting to pit later under green, Montoya and other contenders made their final stops under the yellow flag on lap 68.
Montoya came out of that stop 12th but moved steadily forward as the drivers ahead of him began to make their gas stops. He was third by lap 78, setting up the dramatic finish.