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Montoya captures first career Nextel Cup victory at Infineon

Jun 25, 2007 - 3:02 AM SONOMA, California (Ticker) -- Viva Juan Pablo!

Juan Pablo Montoya became the first Hispanic driver to record a victory in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, benefiting from a late fuel gamble to win Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway.

A native of Colombia, Montoya became the first foreign-born driver to win a race in NASCAR's premier series since Canadian Earl Ross won at Martinsville in September 1974.

"It's huge. I would say right now it's the biggest thing I've done," said Montoya, who averaged 74.547 miles per hour and won $310,600. "To get our first win in our first year is huge."

"He's just like what we all expected him to be," series points leader Jeff Gordon added. "He's talented and extremely aggressive. When he calmed down and was smooth, he was extremely fast. ... I don't think he had the car to beat for the win on speed-wise, but the fastest car doesn't always win."

A former Indianapolis 500 winner and a star on the Formula One circuit, Montoya jumped to NASCAR amidst much fanfare last July.

But the 31-year-old had struggled on stock-car racing's banked ovals, registering just two top-10 finishes over his first 15 Nextel Cup starts.

"We know we're a little bit behind on some of the ovals," he said. "But I think this is a big boost for everybody working in the shop."

That all changed Sunday at Infineon's 1.99-mile road course, as Montoya looked right at home while smoothly navigated the 12-turn track. He took the lead for good with six laps remaining, racing his Dodge Avenger past Jamie McMurray's Ford Fusion along turn 2.

"I saw he was always hugging that corner and I thought, 'This is it,'" Montoya said. "I knew I could pass him there."

Montoya built his lead over the next 2 1/2 laps before fuel became an issue, and it was unclear whether he would have enough left to complete the 110-lap event.

However, he eased up as he crossed the start-finish line when the white flag waved and coasted to the victory.

"I was third with 20 laps to go," Montoya said. "I didn't want to finish third, but I was trying to save fuel."

Montoya joined Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney as the only drivers to win a race in the Nextel Cup Series, the IndyCar Series and Formula One.

However, he would not have joined that elite fraternity without some savvy fuel strategy from his team at Chip Ganassi Racing.

"We missed it a little bit in qualifying, so today we had to play a little catch-up and take a gamble at the end," crew chief Donnie Wingo said. "We made our last stop and just saved enough fuel to make it."

Kevin Harvick ran second in a Chevrolet Impala, registering his best finish in a points race since winning the Daytona 500.

"We knew we're close, and (crew chief) Todd (Berrier) came on the radio and said I had 20 laps to give him one," Harvick said. "I let (Montoya) go and really felt like I saved a lot of gas.

"We saved enough and that was what we had to do. You always want to win, but in the big picture, that is what we had to do."

Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton finished third in a Chevrolet, followed by the Chevy of Clint Bowyer and the Ford of Greg Biffle.

"This is just a great effort by everyone at RCR," said Burton, who signed a contract extension with RCR on Monday. "They have worked really hard last year and this year on the fuel mileage."

Tony Stewart ran sixth in a Chevy, followed by the Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Kyle Busch. Road-course specialist Boris Said finished ninth in a Ford while Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10 in a Chevy.

The 2006 winner of this event, Gordon built a 271-point cushion in the series standings. Hamlin is second, followed by reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who ran 17th in a Chevy and is 366 points off the pace.

Sunday's 219-mile race featured 11 lead changes among eight drivers and included seven caution periods totalling 14 laps.

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