This is the time of year when drivers are divided into two distinct groups: those going all out for wins and those who are points racing. However, even if it’s clear a driver is being careful, he rarely admits it.
An exception is Juan Pablo Montoya, who Friday said his main goal right now is not winning, it’s suriving the cut to the Chase.
“I think in every sport you are in, it is points racing,” he said before qualifying for Sunday’s race at Michigan. “At the end of the day, it matters who wins the championship; it is not who wins the races. So you have to be smart about it. Here it is pretty interesting because you have 26 races and then there’s a cutoff. So you need to make sure you are inside that window when the cutoff comes to run for the championship.”
With that in mind, don’t expect to see the driver who came into Sprint Cup racing beating and banging his way around the track. Montoya, through trial and error (not to mention a little in-house coaching) has learned what it takes to make NASCAR’s playoff.
“We know what average we have to run to be in the Chase,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who beats you that one day or another, you can’t start being focused on one. Last week, you have (Greg) Biffle in front of me, you have (Carl) Edwards in front of me and you have Kyle Busch, and all three guys are right around where I am running. One is on the bubble, one is a little behind me and one is just in front of me.
“And you start thinking, ‘Oh, I need to beat them.’ You don’t. You still need to think about it where everybody else is running. This week, you might be ahead of them or behind them; you just have to keep doing what you are doing. I think overall we have been doing that. We just have to keep doing that. Play it smart, don’t take any big risks and hopefully it pays off.”
That’s a big change from the brash driver who came into NASCAR believing his talent would overwhelm the competition. Though he’s had cars this year that were very competitive, the major difference so far has been his ability to get decent finishes with not-so-good cars.
Though he’s being careful now, if he clinches a spot in the Chase before Richmond, watch out. The Chase could be a lot more fun with Montoya in it. It’s doubtful he’ll be so careful then, either.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...