Juan Pablo Montoya would give just about anything to get into the Chase for the Championship in NASCAR's elite Cup series. But whether he makes it or not, Montoya said that his and his team will hold their heads high, knowing that, in Montoya's words, they have "a lot to be proud of."
Montoya, driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy for Earhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, currently sits eighth in the points standings. He is in no way guaranteed a Chase spot, especially since he is just 88 points ahead of the 13th position.
"You are never secure until you get in," said Montoya. "There are so many things that can happen."
"But I feel much better today than I did last week," said Montoya as he prepared for his final race before the Chase at Richmond International Raceway.
Montoya will have to either finish 18th or better, finish 20th and lead at least one lap, or finish 21st and lead the most laps in order to clinch his Chase berth. In his five previous starts at Richmond, Montoya has had an average finish of 27.8.
But his best finish has been a 10th place finish in his most recent Richmond run.
"We had a good run earlier in the season here in Richmond," said Montoya. "I think our cars are getting better and better."
When asked how he felt about having to race at Richmond in order to get into the championship elite, Montoya said, "I don't get caught up in what track we are at. I feel good about racing here in Richmond."
Montoya and his crew chief Brian Pattie decided to bring Chassis No. 815 back to the Richmond track. This is the chassis that earned Montoya the top 10 finish at Richmond in the spring race.
So far, Montoya has been pleased with his car. He was fastest in Happy Hour, with a speed of 124.412 and a time of 21.702.
Montoya also had a solid qualifying run, with a 14th starting place for the Chevy Rock and Roll 400. He had a qualifying speed of 125.570 and a time of 21.502, picking up in both areas from practice.
With a decent starting spot, Montoya plans to race exactly as he has all season. He stressed his need to run a "clean, consistent race" at Richmond.
"We won't change anything at all," said Montoya. "We're just out there to do the best we can and hope that is good enough to make it."
Montoya's goal since the drop of the green flag in Daytona has been to make the Chase. He demonstrated his singular focus when, after the conclusion of the Atlanta race, he jumped out of his car to run to the nearest television monitor to see where he was in the points standings.
Just what would it mean to Montoya to take his place among the 12 Chasers? "It would mean the world to me," confided Montoya. "But I also think it would mean a lot to Chip (Ganassi) and the entire organization."
Montoya said that if he makes it into the Chase, he might just take a quick moment to acknowledge the accomplishment. "I might celebrate a little if it happens," said Montoya.
But he quickly admits that after his celebration, he would get right back to it, focusing next on winning that coveted championship trophy. If Montoya were to do so, he would make history as the first foreign-born Latino to ever achieve that distinction in NASCAR.
As hopeful as Montoya is about his Chase chances, he simply cannot let himself even think about competing for the championship or who his competition will be. When asked about his feelings about that, he simply said, "Ask me next week if I get into the Chase!"
Montoya and his family relaxed Friday night after qualifying in their motor home, watching a movie together. But on race night under the short track Richmond lights, Montoya will no doubt move from relaxation mode to total focus on racing his way into the Chase and perhaps even into victory lane.
Whether he is in or he is out of the Chase, there is no doubt that Montoya and his team will end the race weekend, as Montoya said, with their "heads held high," taking great pride in all that they have accomplished so far in their 2009 season.