SONOMA — Turns out the Car of Tomorrow is pretty good at road course racing.

That was the opinion of a number of NASCAR drivers after the COT made its road course debut at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway on Sunday.

There was a race-record 11 lead changes, and after a run of seven caution flags in the first 68 laps, the COT provided plenty of drama as Juan Pablo Montoya made two passes in the final 17 laps to earn his first NASCAR Nextel Cup victory.

"It's pretty good racing. You can pass people," Montoya said. "It's pretty tough, and it's responsive to change. It's amazing. We made some small changes and everything was reacting pretty good."

The COT has had its share of critics during its inaugural year on the CUOP circuit. Following his win in Bristol, the first race for the new car, Kyle Busch said he wasn't a fan and called the race "boring."

After Sunday's race, Busch was also complimentary about its receptiveness to adjustments.

"It was a pretty fast race car there for a while," said Busch, who finished eighth. "We were struggling for a little bit trying to get it to turn. But we freed it up through the corners and took a little bit of the drive off. Definitely, it was faster that way."

Drivers knew that they would have to finesse their way around the 1.99-mile track more than in past years.

"I think you can pass more with this car than you could with the old car just because it's so easy to slide the inside tire," said Jeff Burton, who started sixth and finished third.


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"And if you don't get in there just right, you slide up the corner and the guys behind you are getting a good shot (to pass)."

Everyone will try to take what they learned here into the next course race, at Watkins Glen on Aug. 12.

"They are pretty fun to drive, to be honest with you," runner-up Kevin Harvick said. "You can't just barrel them off in the corners and let off the brake when the thing turns. You have to somewhat finesse the thing around."

MOROSE LOSER: One of the most disappointed drivers was Robby Gordon, the 2003 winner here, who led the most laps (47) but had to pit under a green flag on lap 70 of the 110-lap race for fuel and tires and never contended after that, finishing 16th.

Robby G. had only a backhanded compliment to the winner, Montoya.

"I'm going to say he got lucky today," Gordon said. ''He didn't win this race, he got lucky on fuel mileage. ... He's a helluva racecar driver, I'll give him that credit. His team probably worked on their carburetors, but they didn't have the fastest car. They just got lucky and won."

Of his own race, Gordon expressed almost disbelief.

"I can't believe we got beat," he said. ''We came in here withour guns blazing, and when we showed up we had the fastest car. We just got beat by a fuel strategy call."

UP IN SMOKE: Tony ''Smoke" Stewart, who also was victimized by the fuel-strategy call made with 42 laps to go by the top five, came back to finish sixth and passed Jeff Gordon late in the rae.

Stewart left quickly after the race, but Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, did echo Robby Gordon's comments to the extent that he felt the top finishers' fuel strategy cost his car a chance to win.

"We did exactly what we planned because our fuel mileage was what it was," Zipadelli said. ''Today the last caution fell about six laps too soon. ... What it did was give all the slow cars an opportunity to come in and put tires on and save fuel. There is no way in the world we could have saved that much."

NEW OWNER? Jerry Rice, the grand marshal for Sunday's race, said he's interested in following the footsteps of Joe Gibbs, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman and becoming a stock car owner.

Rice received a crash course in NASCAR this week after he took two laps around Infineon's 1.99-mile road course on Monday and met Jeff Gordon on Friday.

He said he's been approached by former Oakland Raiders teammate Tim Brown on a couple of occasions about getting involved in NASCAR. Brown is still looking to run a full-time team, while Staubach and Aikman are part-owners of Hall of Fame Racing. Joe Gibbs owns Joe Gibbs Racing. 

"Because I've had the opportunity to come here and experience this, and I know more about it now, I would love to be a part of it," Rice said. "I realized how important teamwork is here. It's not all about just the driver. They all work together as a team. And I think that's why they have success on the track."

PIT STOPS: Kyle Petty, who was providing color commentary for TNT while he was in his car, uttered an expletive on live television as he was broadsided by Matt Kenseth in Turn 11 early in the race. Petty finished 39th. ... Montoya increased his lead in the Rookie of the Year standings by 10 points, as he now leads David Ragan 180-165. ... Burton posted his eighth career top 10 finish on a road course. He has eight top 10s this season and is fifth in points.

Staff writer Jack Rux contributed to this notebook.