With all the attention to fuel -- who's out and who's not -- at Pocono and Michigan the past two weeks, it might be easy to overlook the progress Juan Pablo Montoya has been making in his climb toward a position in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Don't look now, but the man who won seven Formula One races and has an Indianapolis 500 title on his resume is getting the hang of these relatively unwieldy 3,400-pound stock cars.

Back-to-back top-ten finishes -- eighth at Pocono and sixth at Michigan -- have Montoya sitting 14th in the Cup standings after 15 races, two positions and 43 points from the top twelve. After next Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., it would hardly be surprising to find Montoya among the series' elite dozen.

"I think that's a great weekend for us to get a top five," said Montoya, who claimed his only Cup win at Infineon in 2007 and ran sixth there last year. "And we'll take that top five, because we need the points. Right now it's about points. It's not about winning races.

"Of course we want to win races. Of course we want to do good. But the goal for this year is making the freakin' Chase. So right now, we're doing everything it takes to do it. It's about finishing the races and finishing good.

"To make the Chase you've got to beat a lot of really good cars and big teams, but I think we've got the potential. Is it going to be done? I don't know. But do we have a chance? Yes, we do have a chance."

That Montoya is on the cusp of Chase eligibility is something of a minor miracle, given that the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing organisation that employs him doesn't have the same resources at its disposal as do Sprint Cup racing's strongest teams -- Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Montoya is benefitting from a switch to Chevrolets this season, a product of the merger of Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. In Montoya's estimation, the engines produced by the Earnhardt-Childress alliance (which supplies power plants to EGR and Richard Childress Racing) are more potent than the Dodge engines Ganassi used in 2008, before the merger.

The Chase field will be set after the Sept. 12 race at Richmond. Looking at the next eleven races on the schedule, Montoya has to like his chances. There are two road-course races, at Infineon and Watkins Glen. On July 26, the Cup series goes to Indianapolis, where Montoya finished second to Tony Stewart in his first run there in a stock car (2007). Return visits are scheduled at four other tracks where Montoya already has posted top 10s this season: Pocono, Michigan, Bristol and Richmond.

This is the week for him to make the first big move, given that the three drivers immediately ahead of him in the standings haven't exactly demonstrated mastery of the 1.99-mile road course. David Reutimann (13th in the standings) finished 40th at Infineon in his only start (2008). Jeff Burton (12th) has an average finish of 18.9 there, and Matt Kenseth has struggled to an average result of 21.8.

"With the double-file restart, it's going to be a little bit crazier than normal there," Montoya said. "We've just got to go out there and see what we can do."

Given that the racing line at Infineon isn't wide enough to accommodate side-by-side racing up the hill through Turns 2 and 3 (the highest elevation on the course), Infineon will be the first real test of NASCAR's new restart policy. In the past, road-course races have restarted single-file.

But if anyone has the skill to negotiate the minefield through the first few corners, it's Montoya.

Don't be surprised if the points report after next Sunday's race shows Montoya among the top twelve.

In fact, you can bet on it.
by Reid Spencer/Sporting News