TALLADEGA, Ala. – Juan Pablo Montoya grabbed a sliver of the spotlight focused on the three championship contending drivers by winning the pole at Talladega Superspeedway.
While the focus should be on Montoya's bid to win his first race on an oval track, he knows it will instead be on the middle of the pack, where championship contenders Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday's race.
"If you are in the Chase and you are not in the top three (in standings), nobody even cares," Montoya said.
It's the downside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which pits the top-12 drivers against each other in a 10-race push to the title. Sunday's race at Talladega is the beginning of the final four-race stretch, and the field has separated itself so that only three drivers have a realistic shot at winning the title.
And none of them was as good as Montoya in qualifying.
Harvick qualified 14th, Hamlin 17th and Johnson 19th for a race that could be pivotal in shaking up the standings. Because of the unpredictability at Talladega, the rankings could look dramatically different by the time the checkered flag falls Sunday.
Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, has a six-point lead over Hamlin. Harvick, winner of the April race at Talladega and the July race at Daytona, is 61 points back.
"I think it's very possible for (Harvick) to leapfrog both of us this weekend," Hamlin said. "I think it's a complete wild card. We just don't know what's going to happen."
For starters, the Chase contenders will have to work their way to the front of the field, where Montoya will lead Bowyer and Busch at the green flag.
Bowyer, who is 12th in the Chase standings, is still searching for a win that will give him some redemption from the championship-crippling penalty he received when his winning car from New Hampshire failed inspection.
And Busch, who is ninth in the standings, wants a long overdue victory in a restrictor-plate race.
They'll have to jockey their way through the field to achieve those goals, as alliances will be formed and drivers will do what they can to help their preferred contender leave Sunday's race with his title hopes intact.
For Hamlin, that likely means some solid help from the entire Toyota organization.
"I think it was important that we get everyone together, especially to realize that Toyota has been a big part of NASCAR racing for the last 10 years," Hamlin said. "Everyone has spent a lot of time, money and effort over the last 10 years trying to get to this point to where Toyota has an opportunity to win a championship.
"It was important that everyone get on the same page as far as that's concerned. I think not just us, but everyone in the Toyota camp to ensure that we don't do anything stupid and take each other out."
Same goes for Harvick, who had his squabbles last week with Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton. A meeting this week calmed the issue, and now RCR's Burton and Bowyer will probably try to help Harvick on Sunday.
"When you have two really competitive drivers with cars capable of winning the race, racing as hard as they can, it's just one of those things," Childress said. "We've talked about it. They were racing to win and they know what they would probably do different next time. I talked to them, but wanted to make sure that, coming here, we are all on the same page.
"And we are."