Montoya breathing easier after first win |

Montoya breathing easier after first win

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP PhotoJuan Pablo Montoya raises his arms after winning the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Sunday.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ” There was so much buildup for Juan Pablo Montoya’s first NASCAR road race, he knew only a victory would satisfy his critics.

So when he crossed the finish line for his first Nextel Cup win, Montoya couldn’t help but feel relieved.

“So many people thought I would win. It didn’t really matter if I thought I would win. Because, yes, we were going to try, but a lot of people just thought it was automatic,” Montoya said of Sunday’s win at Infineon Raceway.

“So when it was over, I was just so, so relieved that it was like taking pressure off my shoulders. It was a really big thing for me.”

Considered one of the world’s best road racers, Montoya knew he was expected to put on a show at the winding course in Sonoma, Calif.

Few took into account that Montoya’s still learning stock cars, that his Chip Ganassi Racing team lags behind NASCAR’s elite organizations and that victories can be few and far between in NASCAR.

Consider that before Montoya’s win:

– It was the first Nextel Cup victory for car owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates since October 2002.

– It was the first win for crew chief Donnie Wingo since he led Geoff Bodine to a 1993 win in Sonoma.

– Sponsor Texaco/Havoline had not been to Victory Lane since Ricky Rudd won at Sonoma in 2002.

– Montoya’s No. 42 had not been to Victory Lane since Joe Nemechek drove it to a 1999 win at New Hampshire.

Montoya’s victory was his first in 17 Nextel Cup starts and marks his first finish higher than 20th since placing eighth at Texas on April 15. There’s no denying the switch from Formula One to stock cars has been difficult, and the Montoyas are increasing their commitment by relocating to the Charlotte area.

They’ve been based in Miami for years, and Montoya was adamant that he wouldn’t move to NASCAR’s hub. But his wife, Connie, recently suggested they should consider it, so he’s looking for a second home.

“I never thought I would get a place in Charlotte, and the wife, normally we wouldn’t move,” he said. “But Connie said we need to move, she said ‘We need to stop running 20th every week.’ We will still be based in Miami, but I am going to start spending a bit more time in Charlotte.

“I think it will be best to help drive the team forward, to be around for support and to show how much this means to us.”

Although he’s 21st in the points and has struggled at times on the track, Montoya is having a fabulous year that started with a victory in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona road race, a Busch Series win at the road course in Mexico City and now the Cup win. He’s now the third driver ” joining Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney ” to win in Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR.

But the tough times at Darlington, Dover and Michigan have been humbling for a driver who has won the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and a CART Championship.

“This isn’t easy stuff, but I never thought it would be,” Montoya said. “We’ve been working so hard lately, and the last few races were tough. So this is a good step. I mean, I was definitely going to try to win in my first year. But could we do it? It is really hard to say it could be done.

“I am very happy we got a win, but there’s so much more work to be done.”

Q: It sounds like Connie has a lot of influence in your career ” from saying in Victory Lane she knew you would win and now telling you to spend more time in Charlotte. Has it always been that way?

JPM: “You know, lately, she’s been really, really, really, excited. She just really enjoys NASCAR, and we both just want to win as much as we can.”

Q: How was Chip after the win?

JPM: “He told me he nearly had a heart attack. I will say that’s the happiest I have seen him, maybe he was like that a little bit in Mexico City, but before that it had not been since the Indy 500.”

Q: What about your family?

JPM: “My father said he almost had a heart attack, too. He was very happy. Only he and Connie were there. And my sister”

Q: Oh, your kids missed it? Does (2-year-old son) Sebastian understand it yet?

JPM: “He is really surprising how good he is. He really picks it up. He can look at the TV, and he knows what car is mine. He sees the Texaco star and he says ‘Papa,’ straight away. It’s really pretty cool. But he was not there. He didn’t know I won.”

Q: Have you heard from anyone since the win?

JPM: “Kevin Harvick came to Victory Lane to say congratulations, and I saw Jeff Gordon and he said ‘Great job.’ And both of my teammates came. It was very nice.”

Q: Is this the happiest you’ve ever been?

JPM: “Yeah, as a person, I am really happy right now. Working with Chip has been really cool. I really like Chip. He believes in you, and he supports you. He’s just a guy that really believes in me, and he’ll trust you 100 percent. Chip is a guy if something goes wrong, he still always believes I can get the job done.”

Q: Been a long time since you received that kind of support from a boss?

JPM: “I don’t even want to discuss that.”

Q: So has life changed as a Nextel Cup winner?

JPM: “No, I played golf and was on the Jet Skis a bit, playing in the water. But now we go to New Hampshire, and it’s a bit like getting back to reality. There’s a lot of things that need to be done. We cannot forget why we are here, because it’s about winning more than road courses.”

Q: Yes, but the Sonoma win put you in some pretty elite company. Does that mean anything to you?

JPM: “I’m really happy, really relaxed. When you think about it, I’ve won in anything and everything I’ve raced. Even this year, I’ve won so far in a Grand Am car, a Busch car and now a Nextel Cup car. That’s very big. But my place in history? Not so important right now. Maybe when I am 60.”

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