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His team remained conservative in reaching the Chase. That's changing now.

For 26 races, Juan Montoya and his crew chief worked solely on making the Chase for the Championship.

After grabbing one of the coveted berths, everything over the final 10 Sprint Cup 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 in the top five in all three Chase races as the series heads this weekend to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. He's third in points, just 51 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 used all year.

Indeed, in the Chase opener at New Hampshire, Montoya set a track record to earn 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 settled for third.

Then he grabbed a career-best fourth-place finish at Dover, and matched it last week at Kansas with some aggressive driving - 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."

Montoya, who starts fifth in Sunday's Pepsi 500, has just one Cup win in three seasons, at Sonoma in 2007, and started the Chase with just seven top-five finishes in 99 starts. Still, he has 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 so. We did. ... 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, 34, 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 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."