As good as it can be

TALLADEGA, Ala. – It's always better when you win. But sometimes second place can feel just as good.

Juan Pablo Montoya's runner-up finish in the Aaron's 499 was as good as a win for the beleaguered NASCAR program at Chip Ganassi Racing.

And don't look now, but the Colombian-born driver has moved into the top 12 in the points standings. Is he a Chase contender?

Definitely, but first things first – he wants to win on an oval.

Everyone knows about Montoya's prowess on the road courses. And it came as no surprise when, in his rookie season, he won a Cup race at Sonoma and a Nationwide race in Mexico City – both road races.

Those victories came pretty much as a given. After all, Montoya had spent much of his career racing on those tracks in open wheel cars before coming to NASCAR.

But to his credit, Montoya has shown he can do well on ovals in those cars, too.

He scored several wins on ovals while in the now-defunct CART series, and of course he's laid claim to perhaps the biggest prize in all of racing, winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

Regardless, the question remains if he can duplicate that success against the round-course masters in the Cup Series.

On Sunday, he nearly did.

Using a series of well-thought-out moves, the kind you'd expect from someone with far more experience in restrictor plate racing, Montoya kept his Juicy Fruit Dodge in the thick of things all afternoon.

"I screwed up a couple of times today," Montoya admitted, although the casual observer would have not noticed.

His result may have surprised some, but not Montoya.

"I've loved restrictor plate racing since the first time I came to Talladega, I loved it," Montoya said.

The bumping, the chess moves and being in the right place at the right time are what make restrictor plate racing entertaining to watch, nerve-rattling for drivers and crew chiefs and all that more rewarding when the end result is one as good.

More than once Sunday, Montoya showed he had both the smarts and the car to compete for the win. And if it hadn't been for a last-lap caution flag, with him glued to race-winner Kyle Busch's bumper, Montoya might have just pulled it off.

"If the race had gone on, I would have dictated the outcome," explained Denny Hamlin, who had the ability all afternoon to push whomever he wanted directly to the front, something he did nearly a dozen times, "and more than likely I would have pushed Juan up to the front (ahead of his teammate Busch)."

Perhaps that strategy would have worked. Unfortunately for Montoya, he'll have to settle for thinking about a woulda–coulda scenario on the ride home.

Although Montoya's drive from mid-pack to the front of the field in the closing laps was not enough to take the trophy back home, it did vault him into some pretty special company. He leaves Talladega sitting inside the prized top 12 in driver points for the first time this season.

"I think this really motivates everybody back in Charlotte and hopefully you know, it's time that we are headed in the right direction," Montoya said.