- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Felix Sabates was in the middle of a poker tournament on Wednesday night, trying to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, when his cell phone rang.
It was his Sprint Cup driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, pleading for $5,000.
"I say, 'For what?'" Sabates, the minority owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, told a group of reporters Thursday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "He says, 'I'm in jail.'"
Sabates saw his dream of Montoya, third in points heading into Saturday night's fifth race of the Chase, flash before his eyes. He ran outside to hear better, shouting into the phone, "What you do? What you do?"
Montoya repeated in his Colombian accent, "Well, I'm in jail and I need $5,000."
Before it went much further Montoya let Sabates know it was a NASCAR "Jail and Bail" program and he was trying to raise money for charity as well.
"What he did to me last night, I wanted to kill him," Sabates told the group. "As a matter of fact, I want to find him and hit him."
Apparently, Sabates didn't think much of Montoya's dry sense of humor.
But it was well-accepted in the infield media center at LMS, where anything dry on an ugly wet day was welcome.
Montoya entertained for nearly 20 minutes with short quips -- some he was trying to be cute with and some that just flowed naturally in the question-and-answer session.
If he's feeling pressure being the only driver not associated with Hendrick Motorsports inside the top five in points, he's not showing it.
"Right now you look at it, it is two Hendrick cars, myself and then two more Hendrick cars, or one is [Tony] Stewart, sorry, not a Hendrick car," Montoya said, smiling. "Right now, they are dominating the sport and to be in the mix of things with them, it is great."
Montoya is more than in the mix. His 3.5 average finish in the first four playoff races has him only 58 points behind three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. He's only 46 behind Mark Martin, the sentimental favorite to win the title at the age of 50.
He's 26 points ahead of fourth-place Stewart and 47 up on four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
That's pretty high cotton for a guy who four years ago was racing open-wheel cars in Formula One.
"Well, I can't complain," Montoya said. "The first four races have been pretty good."
He's been running better than pretty good. Damn good sums it up best. He easily is the biggest surprise of the Chase. Few expected him to be a factor after slipping in with no wins.
"He has stepped up in a whole new way and surprised a lot of us throughout the Chase," Gordon said.
Montoya is like a breath of fresh air for the playoffs. He has a style and demeanor like no one else in the garage -- on and off the track.
"You see him running high qualifying sometimes where everybody [else] is on the bottom," Gordon said. "He will drive in as deep or deeper than anybody out there. He'll run unique lines and search around.
"So he brings his own unique style to it which I think is what is going to make him successful."
But it's that off-the-track style that kept us laughing on a day better suited for a hot bowl of chili and a spot on the couch in front of the television. It's not so much what he said sometimes as how he said it.
The latter was especially true when Montoya was asked if he would take any less pride winning the title without winning a race.
"Oh no!" he said, his eyes growing wide. "It is points, isn't it? At the end of the day? It is not like I am not trying to win a race or the championship. I am trying to win both.
"It is OK. It is what it is. Thinking about 'Oh my gosh, if I win this without winning a race, what am I going to say?' If I win the championship, I still won the championship."
Most don't give Montoya a chance. Most don't see how he can maintain this torrid pace of four finishes of fourth or better.
You see him running high qualifying sometimes where everybody [else] is on the bottom. He will drive in as deep or deeper than anybody out there. He'll run unique lines and search around.
”-- Jeff Gordon
He's shown no reason to think he can't, though.
"I was happy last year when I was finishing 15th and right now we finished third and I am pissed off," Montoya said.
Yes, there's a fire burning behind his sometimes sarcastic demeanor. He wants to win a title just as much as Martin, who may never have another chance this good at his age.
"He may not always show it publicly, but he wants to win a championship very badly," Sabates said. "He's very intense. You don't see that side of him. We see that side of him. He doesn't want to sound like a rah-rah-rah guy, but inside of him, he is very serious."
No slap at EGR equipment, but Sabates is so confident in Montoya's abilities that he believes Montoya would have five wins had he been in a Hendrick car.
Montoya addressed that as one would expect. He took the opposite approach.
"Being in a Hendrick car doesn't mean you are going to win," he said. "You look at Junior [Dale Earnhardt Jr.], he has won a lot of races before and he's in a Hendrick car and he is struggling."
Montoya struggled his first two seasons. He finished 20th in points as a rookie and 25th last season. He led only 40 laps and had only nine top-10s. This season he's led 348 laps and has 16 top-10s, including six top-5s.
And in the Chase he is putting up overall numbers better than Johnson, whose average finish is 3.75.
"Beginner's luck," Montoya said.
No luck. Just talent paired with a solid crew chief in Brian Pattie and a solid engine-chassis program.
A dry sense of humor helps, as well, in what generally is considered a pressure situation.
"He's a jokester," Sabates said. "What he did to me [Wednesday night], I wanted to kill him. When I see him today I'm gonna hit him."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
9dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information