Montoya lets NASCAR know his name

HAMPTON - Colombia is in the house.

NASCAR rookie - if you can call an Indy 500 winner that - Juan Pablo Montoya took his biggest steps so far this weekend at Atlanta on his way to becoming the sensation most seem to be expecting.

Montoya, whose resume includes wins in the 2000 Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the CART championship, made his first real statement since moving from the open-wheel circuit to stock cars by claiming two top-ten finishes this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"The best result before this is like 19th, so I think we're going in the right direction," Montoya said after his fifth-place finish in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500.

Pair that with finishing eighth the day before in the Busch race, and Montoya's conclusion is clear: "This was an exceptionally good weekend."

A good weekend to be sure. Co-car owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates have entrusted the Formula One veteran with the duty of returning the Texaco/Havoline car to its glory days when the late Davey Allison ran up front most weekends. But NASCAR has entrusted him with something else: bringing more diversity into the sport and adding a Hispanic fan base.

With performances like this, Montoya is well on his way to accomplishing both objectives.

Running a high line Sunday that at times seemed almost reckless, Montoya sped around the track with an ease that had previously been lacking.

"The thing about this track is you can really race," Montoya said. "That's one of the bigger things for me. The way the car was slipping up before (at Las Vegas) on the harder tires it was unpredictable and I wasn't that comfortable."

Second-place finisher Tony Stewart, also an open-wheel transplant, was impressed.

"To come to Atlanta and run that well here and figure this place out, I mean, I didn't figure it out in one try by any means. He did an awesome job," he said.

Montoya's frenetic style caught the attention of other drivers as well. Even though he was a lap down, Jeff Gordon decided to mix it up with Montoya, but others could only be amazed.

"I was running fifth or whatever and he blew my doors off," said eventual third-place finisher Matt Kenseth.

"When he was running the high side ... I said he's going to win the race if he doesn't hit the wall. He was flying out there."

While Montoya enjoyed the praise, he was quick to return it. He was most impressed by the style of driving he's found in Nextel Cup.

"Something that is amazing is how clean they race," he said.

"You can tell the better they are, the cleaner the race. It's great. You get a run, they'll give you room, they get a run on you, you gotta give them room, and you learn to play that way. It just makes racing awesome."

Montoya is also reluctant to assume future success based on one good weekend. But it's a measured reluctance tempered with just a bit of confidence born of success in other divisions, something Stewart recognized.

"Every track he goes to this year is going to be a new track for him, but I mean (his top-five finish) shows why he got his opportunity in Formula One - because he's a great talent."

Montoya more than anyone knows his capabilities - and limitations.

"I think the next ones are going to be pretty hard," he said. "We've got Bristol, that's going to be a nightmare. Martinsville will probably be another tough one. Darlington - let's not even talk about that one.

"We're going to have our ups and downs. When the car's good and I'm comfortable, I'm going to get in a rhythm."

NASCAR is banking on that rhythm. When it comes and just how good Montoya will be is still a question mark. He could have moderate success.

Or it could turn out like his Formula One experience. After Montoya derided his former series on Sunday by saying he quit watching after a few laps because he could predict the winner, Stewart came back with a quip that could turn out to be more like a premonition.

"It's like watching you last year," Stewart told Montoya. "You'd watch the start, watch three laps and we'd all go to bed."