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Montoya surprised by pole at Pocono

4 August 2012

The only time that Juan Montoya has looked quite this hot in 2012 was when he escaped disaster after hitting the back of a jet dryer at Daytona in February, so it was something of a surprise to see him celebrating his first pole position since April 2011 at Pocono Raceway on Saturday.

That's not being unkind to the former F1 driver: he was as stunned as anyone, as he freely admitted after the qualifying session.

"To be honest with you, I'm not sure if I'm more shocked that we're on the pole right now - with how the last few races have been for us and how our season's been - or that we're on the pole at Pocono," said Montoya. "This is a place where I normally struggle in qualifying."

The team had played a strategic joker by 'sandbagging' in the first practice session on Friday, which meant they got an early qualifying run on Saturday when they calculated that the cooler weather conditions would be at their optimum and that later runners would struggle on the slippery surface as it heated up.

"Qualifying is the same as racing,"explained Montoya of the thinking that the team had done. "You've just got to make the right call and do whatever it takes to get it done, and that's what we did."

Montoya will be joined on the front row of the grid for the Pennsylvania 400 on Sunday afternoon by Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, who was just 0.072s off Montoya's pole time of 51.124s (176.043mph) after having looked at one stage like he was going to overhaul the Colombian's time by a big margin.

"I'd like to say it was a good run, but just a little bit disappointed," he said. "Knowing we were over a quarter-second ahead going into the last corner, [but] just missed it and our car was just way too loose. Missed the lap a little bit, but still we were very fortunate to end up where we were and at least now we will have a good starting spot."

Hamlin was also still on cloud nine after the announcement on Friday that he and his girlfriend Jordan Fish were expecting a baby, due in January. "It's been a long time coming," said Hamlin of the news. "It's going to be exciting to be a dad ... Everything works great, things happen and we're excited about the timing. It's going to be in January, so it's the offseason, so all of that seems to be aligning perfectly for us."

Third position in qualifying went to Paul Menard, who was almost as startled by his good fortune as Montoya had been with gaining pole position. Menard's weekend at Pocono had got off to a horror start in the first practice session on Friday when he'd got loose and crashed the #27 car, and a subsequent fire had meant he was forced to take to his his backup car for the rest of the weekend.

"It was a little bit looser than yesterday," Menard said of how things felt in the backup car on Saturday for qualifying. "It didn't feel like the track had, it just didn't feel grippy. I'm sure the track was cooler and had more grip. The car felt a little more out of the track than yesterday. I don't know it will be decent for everything that the guys went through they busted their butts and got the back-up car ready [but] I think we will be okay."

ALongside Menard on the grid will be fellow Chevrolet runner Kasey Kahne. “It was pretty good," he said of the car. "The Farmers Insurance Chevy was balanced really well. I was bouncing a little bit through the tunnel turn, I got a little tight because of that. I had good grip around the whole track and it was a fairly easy lap. The car had a lot of grip hopefully it will be the same tomorrow."

The third row will see Richard Petty Motorsports' Marcos Ambrose lining up alongside Kurt Busch in the Phoenix Racing #51.

"It is hard you only have one lap," said Ambrose. "We struggled a little bit and made some changes. I was pretty free in turn one and lost all my time there. I feel like I got the rest of the lap pretty good ... This place is definitely a challenge. It's a tough track to get a handle on."

"Pocono is the kind of place where drivers either love it or hate it," agreed Busch. "You have to compromise a lot here. You just can't be dialed-in for one corner; you've got to keep all three in mind. It's kind of like a Phoenix or a Darlington."

Kurt Busch is one of only four drivers at Pocono - the others being Joe Nemecheck, Mike Bliss and Penske Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. - to be attempting to do double duty in both the Cup race in Pennsylvania and the US Cellular 250 Nationwide Series race over in Iowa on Saturday evening, making it a frenzied 24 hours of commuting back and forth.

"I'm waiting on a couple of other racers, they're going to do their qualifying laps and then we're headed to Iowa," he said. "We have plenty of time today. We're going to drive to the airport and then fly into Newton and we're going to qualify the car and give it a great race tonight. And today, it doesn't matter how good or how bad we do.

"Today's my birthday, so it's going to be just fine," he said with a grin.

But the biggest smiles of all on pit road after qualifying were undoubtedly to be found around the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing pit stall and hauler, and understandably so.

"I just went through the hauler, and all the engineers are happy, laughing," said Montoya. "I've seen a lot of long faces and a lot of stressful faces - we really needed something like this as a company."

Now the big question is whether Montoya can convert the pole position to a strong race finish on Sunday afternoon or perhaps even a much-needed win to help the team develop some momentum going into the second half of the Sprint Cup season, even if a spot in the Chase is perhaps too much to even dream about.

“Yeah, it's not so much momentum, but its work. We've really got to keep working; keep working on the cars and keep understanding what we need to do," explained Montoya. "It's how do you put everything together; and we've been doing a really good job at it. So, we'll see."

Full qualifying and practice times available.


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