CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — For 26 races, Juan Pablo Montoya and his crew chief worked solely on making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

After grabbing one of the coveted berths, everything over the final 10 races was thought to be a bonus. There were no expectations and zero pressure.

And maybe that’s why they’ve been the most surprising team of the Chase.

Montoya is the only driver to finish inside the top five in all three Chase races as the series heads this weekend to Auto Club Speedway in California. He’s ranked third in the standings, just 51 points behind leader Mark Martin, and the Colombian is hanging tough in his bid to become the first foreign-born champion in NASCAR history.

It’s not with smoke and mirrors, either.

“We’re done giving up points,” crew chief Brian Pattie said in a nod to the conservative strategy the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team had used all year. Montoya raced for solid finishes instead of victories, and as a result he went into the Chase winless but with an average finishing position of 13.9.

Everyone knew that wasn’t going to be enough, and no one was certain the No. 42 team had anything more to give.

They wasted little time proving otherwise, leading every practice session in the opener at New Hampshire, where Montoya set a track record in winning the pole for his 100th career start. He almost grabbed his first career win on an oval, too, but was outfoxed by Martin in the closing laps and had to settle for third.

Then he grabbed a career-best fourth-place finish at Dover, and matched it last week at Kansas. He’s done it with aggressive driving — he dived inside late in the race to go three-wide with champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon — and brand new cars Pattie saved for the Chase.

“Juan has found another gear after Richmond that I didn’t know he had,” Pattie said. “I was hoping he did, but I didn’t know.”

Criticized at times this season for points-racing, Montoya and his team are finally showing what they’ve had for some time now. Pattie had an entire fleet of cars ready to roll several months ago, and on paper, it looked as if they’d outperform the Chevrolets he’d been giving to Montoya all season.

But the crew chief said Montoya found the new cars “drive more evil,” and Pattie was too nervous to risk using one until they’d officially locked down a Chase spot. So the first of the new cars made its debut at New Hampshire, and that’s when Montoya stormed to the front of the pack.

The driver may hate the new cars — he was surly at times Sunday over his radio, when he complained about the handling — but they are definitely making a difference. Montoya will race a brand new car Sunday at California, and the Chevy he drove to an 11-place finish there in February is now the third backup.

“They definitely don’t drive like a Cadillac, but we used a Cadillac and ran 15th,” Pattie said. “I’d prefer they are more like a Ferrari – they don’t drive that great, but they sure are fast.”

It’s given everyone a chance to see just how far Montoya has come since his late 2006 move from Formula One to NASCAR, and how radically improved his team is since Pattie was given the challenge of rebuilding Chip Ganassi’s flagship team 16 months ago.

And it’s put Montoya back in title contention for the first time in years. Although he has an Indianapolis 500 win and CART championship on his resume, his stint in F1 was pocked with inconsistency and his maturation in NASCAR was slowed by the overall performance of the Ganassi organization.

So there’s been just one win through three seasons, on the road course at Sonoma in 2007, and Montoya started the Chase with just seven top-fives in 99 previous starts. Only two of them were this season, before the Chase began.

It became clear twice this season that Montoya is a little rusty running for wins — a speeding penalty late at Indianapolis cost him a sure win, and Martin fooled him to beat him at New Hampshire — but he’s given no sign that he’s under any pressure to win a title this year.

“Everybody is calm and everybody knows what they’ve got to do,” Montoya said. “Our goal was really making the Chase, and there was a lot of pressure on everybody to do. We did. Of course you want to run well, of course you want to fight for the championship, but this is a bonus for us right now.

“Everybody is pumped up about it and everybody is trying to bring their A-game every week. It’s exciting.”

Pattie is surrounded by it all week, while Montoya returns to Miami to play family man and recharge between races. The crew chief found that the driver is relaxed and loose by the time he gets to each racetrack, and the team morale has never been higher.

“Everybody had us written off before the season even started,” Pattie said. “We’re not supposed to be here, remember? And now, where we are parked in the garage, we’re getting respect we weren’t getting 12 months ago. Team morale has never been better, and the way we’re going about things, everyone is just having a lot of fun.”

Pattie thinks it can continue because there are many other story lines besides Montoya’s to focus on right now. He looks around the garage at counterparts Chad Knaus, Alan Gustafson and Darian Grubb, and doesn’t envy the pressures they’ve got crew chiefing three-time defending champion Johnson, sentimental favorite Martin or Tony Stewart, who is trying to become the first driver-owner to win a title since 1992.

So long as those drivers stay in title contention, the plan is to keep Montoya off the radar and inside the top five.

“We’ll let everyone put it on Chad and Jimmie for four straight, or Alan trying to get Mark his first one, or Smoke for moving to his own team,” Pattie said.

“We’re racing champions, which is a good thing. There’s no pressure on us. We can just stay with what’s been working.”

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