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Montoya closing in on the Chase
NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya talks with his crew during practice for the Sprint Cup Series Lenox Industrial Tools 301 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. - photo by Associated Press
HAMPTON, Ga. — Juan Pablo Montoya climbed out of his car after his third-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night and immediately began his search.He was in a rush to find an updated list of the Sprint Cup points leaders heading into the race in Richmond on Saturday night.Montoya quickly found the standings, and the news was good: He had moved up one spot from ninth to eighth.But one look wasn't enough.Back in the media interview room, Montoya walked straight to a computer for another look at the standings. When his interview session was over, he went back to check the names and numbers again.It's crunch time and it's clear by watching Montoya that the real NASCAR racing to watch this weekend will be the battle for the final spots in the group of 12 drivers who will qualify for the Chase for the championship.Montoya had good reason to check and recheck the standings. With one race remaining before the field is set for NASCAR's postseason, only 122 points separate fifth-place Carl Edwards (3,162) and 14th-place Kyle Busch (3,040).Only four drivers have clinched spots: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.Montoya has 3,145 points, and by the time he reached the interview room, he already had figured out the math: He is only 88 points ahead of Brian Vickers, who is 13th with 3,057 points.Matt Kenseth is 12th with 3,077 points, only 20 ahead of Vickers.Kasey Kahne moved up five spots to sixth by winning on Sunday night. He called the big jump "pretty awesome," but said he couldn't assume he's in the Chase."Something could happen early in the race at Richmond," Kahne said. "You could lose a lot."Kahne said he remembers barely missing the cutoff for the Chase in 2004 and then making the cut in the final race of 2006."It's a lot on the line," Kahne said of the last race before the Chase. "You're just going to that race trying to focus as hard as you can, do the best job you can. But it's tough. It's kind of like you're racing for some kind of championship right now."Being eighth gives Montoya confidence. The former Formula One and IndyCar star from Bogota, Colombia, knows a smart, safe race in Richmond will send him to his first Chase."They've got to have a very good day and we've got to have a terrible day," he said of Kenseth and Vickers. "It still can happen."In the position we are in right now, it's just about (Richmond). We have a great car for there. Just be smart. Get a top-10."Montoya says he feels good about the things he can control. The worries come from factors beyond his control: A crash he can't avoid, mechanical problems or flat tires."Every restart you kind of go 'Please, nobody don't slide into me,'" he said.Flats were his undoing in August.Montoya was seventh in the standings before flat tires at Michigan and Bristol led to finishes of 19th and 25th, respectively."You think if not for those two flat tires, we'd be in the Chase right now," Montoya said, shaking his head."In the last week at Bristol, I thought we had a chance of winning, but we had a flat tire and it actually cost us a lot of points," he said. "That's two races with flat tires. It always worries me."Montoya rebounded nicely in Sunday night's Pep Boys 500 at Atlanta. He likes to drive high on the Atlanta Motor Speedway track, and the strategy led to one big scare. He tapped the wall and soon found himself coming off turn three sideways.What happened?"I ran out of talent," he said with a smile."Once the car slides, I'm like 'This is not going to be good.'"But he recovered quickly and somehow his car handled better the rest of the race."It's good," he said. "I didn't hit it that hard. Made the car a little tighter."We had a great points day. We've got to go to the next race and be smart about how we race and see what happens."Montoya is eighth in points despite being held without a Sprint Cup win this season. The third-place finish in Atlanta was only his second in the top five. He has 12 top-10 finishes.But he's closer to the Chase."It just makes life easier," Montoya said of his move up one spot in the standings. "If you really look at the bigger picture, we're pretty good. We're in good shape right now."