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Montoya ready to say 'hola' to NASCAR



Published: Fri, October 20, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Colombian is making a transition from open-wheel racing to stock car racing.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- The caller sounded a tiny bit confused, greeting Juan Pablo Montoya as "Juan Carlos."

Montoya just laughed it off. Apparently, he hasn't made a name for himself in NASCAR quite yet.

Give him time, he says.

"I get up to speed pretty easy," Montoya said.

Continuing his transition from open-wheel to stock car racing, Montoya spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of the season-ending Ford 400 and adding to speculation that he'll make his Nextel Cup debut there next month.

His NASCAR debut is looming fast, Oct. 28 in a Busch Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park -- a track where he tested last week.

And while saying he's feeling more and more comfortable in his new Dodge owned by Chip Ganassi Racing, Montoya knows he's just beginning to realize how big this adjustment really is.

"You can make the car really good and you can make it really bad, really easy, I've noticed," Montoya, who'll drive full-time in NASCAR next year, said before his Wednesday testing session. "We're just learning. We're just learning, trying things. We try to do little steps at a time."

Test time

For Montoya -- who teamed with Ganassi to win the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and is the first F1 driver to defect to NASCAR -- that's what all of the testing sessions have really been about.

Since leaving his McLaren F1 team in July, he tested at both Talladega Superspeedway and Iowa Speedway before entering the ARCA events at those two tracks. He tested last week in Memphis, days before it was announced that he'll return there for the Busch Series stop.

But the slippery, sun-drenched surface at Homestead doesn't compare to any of those tracks, he said.

"So far this has been the hardest test for me, this Cup test," Montoya said. "When I did the ARCA testing, you have spoilers that are a lot bigger than this one, the car is more forgiving. It's learning how far you can go with the car. That's probably been the hardest thing to learn in this car."

He's still a bit befuddled by so many things involved with his new gig, how something like a higher track line here, a tiny shift of a spoiler there, all seem like minute details but wind up making the difference between winning and losing.

"The crazy thing here is how limited the rules are for technology [and] how far they go with the cars," Montoya said. "If you would bring an engineer from like Formula One and show them how detailed the cars are they would be shocked."

Montoya is finding some things shocking, too.

A little help

During his testing Tuesday, he found several drivers offering tips about his car's setup -- including Casey Mears, who also drives for Ganassi, and Kevin Harvick, who drives for Richard Childress Racing.

"You know, we don't do that in Europe," Montoya said. "If you see somebody struggling in Formula One, you're never going to go and say, 'You're making this wrong.' You actually go to your guys and you say, 'You see what they're doing wrong?"'

Had he not taken a different career path, Montoya would be in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this weekend, looking for a third straight victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Instead, he'll be back in his native Colombia, getting some rest before he'll resume preparations for the Busch race in Memphis.

And he doesn't seem like he's missing his F1 days one bit.

"I'm here for the long run whether they like it or not," Montoya said. "Do I want to succeed? Of course, I want to succeed. Is it going to be easy? No. Am I going to have good races? Hopefully yes. Am I going to have bad races? Definitely yes. It's part of it."

Homestead is about 45 minutes south of downtown Miami, Montoya's adopted hometown -- so there would be some obvious symmetry if Ganassi did decide to have his newest driver race in the Ford 400.

But that's not going to affect the decision-making process, Montoya said. He'll join the Nextel Cup series when he's ready, and if that isn't before next February at Daytona, then that sounds fine with him.

"Whatever we decide, whether it's to race here or not, is not because I want to do my debut here," Montoya said. "It's because it is the next right step for me. ... We're not even close to the point we know what we're going to do yet."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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