Juan Pablo Montoya secured his first IndyCar victory since his comeback this past weekend at Pocono.
When Juan Pablo Montoya elected to get out of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series game and return to his open wheel roots with Team Penske, the adjectives bandied about were not pleasant. His critics said he was too old (he’s 38); they said he was too fat; they said he couldn’t play the highstakes game of open wheel anymore.
At the start of the season, it looked like the naysayers knew what they were talking about. Sure, JPM slimmed down a bunch and got into shape for the Verizon IndyCar Series season. He had to, simply to fit properly in the Dallara chassis and to handle these cars, which are bereft of power steering. But the Colombian, whose professional career has spanned F3000, CART, Formula 1, and NASCAR had a very slow start to the year.
It wasn’t a simple matter of “plug and play” like some kind of video game. These cars are difficult at least they’re different to drive and JPM wasn’t about to try and overcome all of his critics (or his own self-criticism) in one or two events.
All along he’s said he was gaining on it, gaining on it and turning the corner. He turned the ultimate corner this weekend at The Tricky Triangle, Pocono Raceway, where Montoya took pole position as the final driver to make a twolap qualifying attempt and then bided his time to win the race, becoming the first pole sitter this year in INDYCAR to win the race he started at the front.
In so doing, Montoya had to use all of the wiles he’s learned in his long career and he achieved this win with an army of Colombian fans lining the Pocono grandstands with their red, yellow, blue flags waving throughout the 500-mile, 200-lap contest. They watched their countryman take his third 500 mile victory (the others were at the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and Michigan 500) and erupted in joy at the checkered flags.
This was the fastest 500 mile race in IndyCar series history with its average speed of 202.402 mph; there was a single caution flag on the 158th lap to slow the field. The Pocono 500 beat the record by Sam Hornish Jr. when he won at Fontana in 2002, with a speed of 197.995 mph. The only hiccup Montoya had was when he lost the end plate of his front wing on the 165th lap as he tried to pass teammate Will Power, who was leading at the time. “Track position is everything and that was the only shot I had at passing Will; I had to take it,” he said. “I was lucky the front wing didn’t break more... “
Even with the added understeer, Montoya was turning laps in the 217-218 range on the three-cornered “oval”, which says a lot about his abilities, doesn’t it? Unlike his first time in the CART series when he drove, as commentator Paul Tracy put it on today’s broadcast, “like a wild man”, Montoya is racing smarter. He’s obviously more experienced than he was 14 years ago during his second CART season. “NASCAR really showed me to look at the bigger picture; it’s a shame you can’t turn back to be 20 again with this experience... “
Although he is racing about 10 seconds a lap quicker than he did in the NASCAR Chevy Montoya drove at Pocono last year, it helped that he knew where the corners were, thanks to that experience. But the two disciplines have no similarities, other than the fact that they’re both racing. Montoya used his wiles to keep the car happy with its fuel and tire situations, controlling his gaps and running smart.
Where Montoya was about 200 out of the championship chase before this month began, he’s now in fourth place and 55 points behind teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, tied for the top spot. “I knew it was going to take a little bit of time (to get re-acclimated to the Indy cars), but having the opportunity to run for Roger, it’s unbelievable. I’ve worked really hard physically and mentally to get here and I feel in a really good place right now. I’m really happy.”
Does this mean we’ve got a better championship on our hands in the Verizon IndyCar Series? It sure looks that way. There are seven races left to run, including another oval tryst next Saturday night at Iowa Speedway. With Juan Pablo Montoya creeping up on teammates Power and Castroneves, and with Simon Pagenaud serving as the buffer between them (Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan HunterReay lies fifth), we’re in for a treat.
“I really wanted to be here in IndyCar, so I’ll probably be here next year for sure, as well,” Montoya said. Bring it on!