Johnson gets thrilling win; Montoya steals the show
What's a better story than the series champ winning on consecutive Sundays? If you're Juan Pablo Montoya, you finish fifth in your fifth Cup start, writes David Newton.
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Juan Pablo Montoya was ready to turn off his television three laps into Saturday night's Formula One opener in Melbourne, Australia.
"You watch the start, by lap three [Kimi] Raikkonen led by six seconds," he said. "What else are you going to watch? I could predict the end of the race."
There was no lack of drama during Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of the many reasons why Montoya made the switch from F1 to NASCAR's premier series.
Nobody could predict a winner until the end.
Mark Martin finished 10th to maintain his lead in the points standings as he prepares for a two-week vacation while everybody else heads to Bristol and Martinsville for the first two Car of Tomorrow races.
But the driver most were talking about was Montoya, who finished fifth in his fifth-career Cup race.
The first thing Burton did after parking his car on pit road was congratulate the Colombian driver. Kenseth once radioed his crew chief that Montoya might win if he kept his car out of the wall driving higher than anybody on the 1.5-mile track.
"When I was running fifth he blew my doors off," Kenseth said. "I thought he was going to [win] because he was flying up there. He was higher on the track than anybody I saw on the track and he was really making it work.
"He had a very unique entry into Turn 3 and, obviously, you don't need me to tell you that he's a great driver. If they can give him a car that can contend, he's gonna contend."
Stewart couldn't say enough good things about the driver Boris Said predicted would be the next Stewart after a Busch Series win in Mexico City two weeks ago.
"I'm pretty impressed," the two-time Cup champion said. "To come to Atlanta and be able to run that well here and figure this place out & I didn't figure it out in one try by any means.
"He did an awesome job."
Even Johnson was impressed.
"Juan on short runs was one of the better cars," he said. "Today is something he should be very proud of. This is a very tough track."
Johnson was especially impressed with the way Montoya handled the high groove.
"When I looked in my mirror and saw him catching me, he was rim riding," he said. "For an open-wheel guy to come in and do that, that's very tough."
Side-by-side racing like the show Johnson and Stewart put on at the race's end was one of the reasons Montoya traded in his high-tech F1 machine for a stock car.
Johnson caught Stewart on the inside lane coming off of Turn 4, nudged ahead going into Turn 1 and thought he was clear going into Turn 2.
Thought was the key word.
As Johnson slid up the track to make his exit out of the turn he pinched the hard-charging Stewart into the wall. Stewart wasn't happy about it afterwards.
"If I pushed the issue we both would have crashed," he said. "I wish he'd given me a little more room. I don't think I ever pinched him or kept him from having room on the track to race.
"He had a faster car. He's probably going to get around us anyway. I just would like to see him give us room to race us for it."
Had Johnson and Stewart raced each other that way in F1, they both likely would have crashed regardless of what Stewart did.
The racing was intense all day, much more so than last week at Las Vegas where hard tires and a slippery track made passing tougher than usual.
Johnson said it was so intense over the final laps that he had to shake his arms and take a deep breath at the start of every lap.
"There was no finesse in the closing laps," he said. "It was just stand-on-the-gas racing."
Montoya thrived on it. He moved as high as third with less than 80 laps remaining and spent several laps battling Johnson for third with 15 laps to go.
"The last restart, I thought I had Jimmie on the outside," Montoya said. "I had a great run. I just ran out of room. It's just one of those things. You're wide open hoping you're going to pass to make it and just run out of room.
"We damaged the fender and Burton passed me, but it's good."
Montoya found himself racing harder than he would have liked a couple of times with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who was fighting to get back on the lead lap.
"I wasn't too impressed with that because I was starting to get to [Kenseth] and as soon as he started getting to my car I started getting really loose and I started losing momentum," he said.
"I couldn't believe that he did it. I don't have anything against him. You've got to understand he wants to get his lap back, and he did."
Montoya's comfort level on a track he'd never seen before Friday and confidence in the high groove showed just how far he has come since he made his Cup debut in last season's finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.
"It's funny, because at Homestead everybody was running the top and I was running the bottom like open wheel," said Montoya, whose previous best finish was 19th. "I wouldn't go up there, no way."
There's no fear in Montoya now. He showed that at the Busch race in Mexico City when he spun out teammate Scott Pruett with eight laps remaining to take the lead.
The improvement he's shown in five Cup events has many competitors predicting he'll soon be standing in Victory Lane as Johnson has the past two weeks.
Montoya said he isn't ready to claim victory -- yet.
"They're making my life tough," he said. "It's hard work, but something that's amazing is how clean they race. You can tell the better they are, the cleaner they race. It's great.
"They give you room if you get a run and if they get a run you'd better give them room. You learn to play that way, and it just makes racing awesome."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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