Juan Pablo Montoya's fuel cell was just big enough for him to record his first ever NASCAR Nextel Cup victory in NASCAR's first ever Car of Tomorrow race at Infineon on Sunday. The native of Columbia became the first foreign born driver to win a race since Earl Ross from Canada won at Martinsville in 1974.
"It's huge," Montoya said. "I would say right now it's the biggest thing I've done. In open-wheel, that's what I was meant to be winning in. In stock cars, I wasn't.
"To get our first win in our first year is huge. We know we're a little bit behind on some of the ovals, but I think this is a big boost for everybody working in the shop."
Montoya's start to the weekend was not a promising one after he qualified 32nd. But Montoya's crew got his car dialed in during both practice sessions, giving him exactly what he needed to get the job done. The crew made no adjustments at all during the race. Montoya became the first driver ever to win from farther back than 13th at Sonoma.
The win was Montoya's second stock car win. He controversially won the NASCAR Busch Series race at Mexico City earlier this year.
"I was very surprised by the level of the drivers here on the road course," Montoya said. "In Mexico, we had a really good car and the top-five cars were really strong. But, behind that, it was really easy."
Montoya's last pit stop of the race came on lap 68 and restarted 12th. As the front runners headed for pit road 20 laps in to the long green flag run that would eventually end the race, Montoya's crew chief, Donnie Wingo made the winning call. He left his driver on the race track and Montoya was able to make a tank full of fuel last 42 laps.
"Today, we had to play a little bit of catchup, so we had to take a gamble there at the end," Wingo said. "He did a great job on saving fuel, everybody did a good job on the stops and the motor shop did a great job. Without the fuel mileage we'd have never made it."
Kevin Harvick was sitting in the catbird seat, waiting to pounce on Montoya when he ran out of gas. But that would not happen. Harvick settled for second. His Richard Childress Racing teammates, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer finished third and fourth respectively, right behind Harvick.
"They came on the radio and told me you've got 20 laps to make up one lap of fuel and the two cars in front of you are both three laps short," Harvick said. "That's how we played it and (Montoya) didn't run out of gas."
Harvick confessed he was surprised it was Montoya he was chasing when the race neared it's conclusion.
"I've been a big fan of Montoya's since he came over," he said. "He's a great road racer, but he wasn't the fastest. The strategy won it for him today."
The winning pass came in turn 2 on lap 104, two laps after Montoya failed to outbreak Jamie McMurray in turn 11.
"I saw he was always hugging that corner and I thought, 'This is it.' I knew I could pass him there," Montoya said. "The top 20 was really like, phew. You had to work for your money.
"What really paid off at the end was I was just running behind Kevin, saving the tires and trying to keep up with him. I did that for 10, 15 laps and I started pushing, I started making up ground on them and that's when everything fell into place."
For McMurray, his weekend was a mirror image of Montoya's. McMurray started the race from the pole and was a front runner all race long. But with two laps to go, McMurray ran out of fuel, forcing him to bring his car to pit lane. He lead laps but wound up finishing 37th.
Robby Gordon started second alongside McMurray. He lead a race high 48 laps but was also a victim of a failed pit strategy. Running second, Gordon made the decision to play it safe and make his scheduled pit stop with 20 laps to go, while most of his competitors stayed out. He wound up finishing a very disappointing 16th.
Points leader, Jeff Gordon overcame a 41st place start to finish seventh. Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson were both banned from first practice and qualifying after NASCAR inspectors deemed their front fenders illegal. Penalties to both drivers and crew chiefs should come within the next few days but Gordon & Co. got the job done on Sunday. Johnson had a top 10 car but was also amongst those who pitted under green in the final laps. He finished 17th.
Montoya's win marked the first win for Dodge this season. Dodge's last win when Kasey Kahne won the Bank Of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in October of last year.