Montoya, good or bad, will be a test highlight

There will be many big names in the second round of testing beginning Monday at Daytona. Juan Pablo Montoya will likely still be the driver getting the most attention, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: January 12, 2007, 6:25 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin are among the second group of Nextel Cup drivers that take the track at Daytona on Monday.

Juan Pablo Montoya
Jason Parkhurst-US PRESSWIRE Juan Pablo Montoya's introduction to Cup racing ended up with plenty of sparks flying.

But most of the attention will go to the guy who uses all three of his names -- Juan Pablo Montoya.

It's big enough that a former Formula One star will make his first laps in a Cup car at Daytona, but Montoya brings a bonus. He's Colombian and has an enormous following in Latin America, along with many Hispanic fans in the U.S.

This is NASCAR's diversity cleanup hitter, and it desperately wants him to hit a home run.

NASCAR officials are determined to increase their Hispanic fan base. They hope Montoya is the big name who can help deliver that market.

It's the same idea Major League Soccer has with the Los Angeles Galaxy signing David Beckman, hoping he can bring more Americans to see the sport everyone else in the world considers No. 1. The difference is it didn't cost NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi $250 million to get Montoya.

Well, at least I hope it didn't.

(OK, while Beckham reportedly got a five-year deal at $50 million per season, that figure includes commercial endorsements and the like; his salary is believed to be in the $9 million range.)

All eyes are on Montoya to see how he handles the move to NASCAR. He showed a glimpse of his racing skills at the end of last season in a few Busch races before making his Cup debut in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That ended in a fiery crash when he was punted by Ryan Newman, just a little "Welcome to Cup" from a fellow racer.

Montoya has the skills to run up front, but the big question is whether Dodge and Ganassi have the equipment to get him there. The Dodge teams are breaking in a new nose on the Charger.

The first test sessions at Daytona this week didn't go well. Dodge didn't have a car in the top three for any of the six test sessions. Dodge failed to place a car in the top 10 in three sessions.

Some of that is expected while trying to figure out the new nose, which Dodge officials wanted to try to improve the aerodynamics of the car.

It's all new to Montoya, which might be a good thing. He has no preconceived notions about how the car should handle. But he's trying to learn the fundamentals of racing a stock car while also trying to figure out the intricacies of drafting in a big pack at Daytona.

Montoya also is competing for a team that hasn't won a Cup race since 2002. So what's the good news?

Montoya is driving the car that finished second in the Daytona 500 last year with Casey Mears at the wheel. Mears finished a career-best 14th in the standings last season, posting two top-fives and eight top-10s in the No. 42 Texaco Dodge.

At least Montoya knows he has a team and a car that was capable of running up front at times last season.

Mears moved to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Brian Vickers in the No. 25 Chevrolet. Mears wasn't going to pass up a chance to go to an organization that has six Cup championships.

Montoya has no such luxury, but he does have one other advantage as a newbie. The Car of Tomorrow will race at 16 events. It's new for everyone.

The COT might help the Dodge teams that struggled with aero problems on the Charger. Dodge is using an Avenger-styled body for the COT.

But the first COT race isn't until March 25 at Bristol. The teams have four races in the current cars before the COT debut.

Montoya has three major learning areas in the first five races. Restrictor-plate racing at Daytona has little in common with racing at high-speed ovals such as California, Las Vegas and Atlanta, the next three circuits on the schedule.

Then it's the COT race. Montoya must adjust to a completely different type of car while also figuring out the demolition derby-style racing on a high-banked short track of Bristol.

But Daytona is the first test, and probably the toughest. At least Montoya has some time to get a feel for it. He gets three days of testing and more track time in February before taking the green flag for the 500.

If Montoya posts fast laps in testing, expectations will rise and media attention will increase. Reporters from his home country, along with a few other South American countries, are expected to cover his first Daytona 500.

It all starts Monday with that first test session on the hallowed ground of Daytona. The place might never be the same.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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