The motorsports veteran will still developing the Chevrolet aerodynamic bodywork package on the upcoming races.
Foremost, Juan Pablo Montoya had to be honest with himself early in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Qualifying 18th and finishing 15th in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was an inauspicious start, and though he could easily have put the emphasis on acclimation to a new car and racetracks after a 14-year hiatus from Indy car racing, Montoya said he "had to grow as a driver."
"Last year was a tough year for us at the beginning. We knew that," said Montoya, who won the 1999 CART title and 2000 Indianapolis 500 before moving to Formula One and then on to stock car racing. "We knew it would be a process to get to where we needed to be. Normally I'm really good at remembering everything about every track and last year I think this was such a blur for me. I was so overwhelmed with everything that I didn't really pay too much attention to details.
It's a good way to start the year,
Juan Pablo Montoya
"It was tough not only (at St. Petersburg) but generally on the street courses. I'm a guy that always excelled at street courses everywhere I raced. To come (to St. Petersburg) and have a year with really bad street course racing, it was pretty tough."
On balance, Montoya quickly found his footing on the diverse set of street/road courses and ovals. Two weeks after St. Petersburg, he advanced 12 positions to place fourth at Long Beach. He finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 and then strung together four top-10 finishes, capped by a victory from the pole at Pocono Raceway in early July. Claiming three consecutive top-five finishes to close the season and finish fourth in the championship standings sparked confidence that carried through the long offseason.
Now, a year after his heralded return, Montoya has come full circle by winning the 110-lap opener on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit. He held off Team Penske teammate and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power over a 27-lap duel of wits and will to win by .9930 of a second. All four Team Penske drivers finished in the top five (Helio Castroneves was third and Simon Pagenaud was fifth). Castroneves' Lap 90 time of 1 minute, 01.8607 seconds in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet was the fastest race lap in the 11 events under INDYCAR sanction at St. Petersburg.
"It's a good way to start the year," said Montoya, who qualified fourth in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. "We worked really hard in the offseason preparing for this. We wanted to hit the ground running. Our car was unbelievable. It was fast and it was fun. To win on a street course after my performance last year, I'm like 'Oh, yeah.'''
Suddenly, championship talk has germinated. The motorsports veteran will take it in stride, looking to further hone his race craft and continue to develop the Chevrolet aerodynamic bodywork package on the upcoming road and street course at NOLA Motorsports Park for the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana on April 12, the 41st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 19, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 26 and the Angie's List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 9 before the 99th Indianapolis 500.
"The fun factor is that you can win races," said Montoya, who celebrated the victory trackside with a sizable Colombian contingent. "I mean, I feel like I'm in the best team. I have a great sponsor. We're performing well. What's the downside of it?"