INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – one night only, an encore of sorts, in a guest-starring role for Team Penske.
The Colombian is entered in the Brickyard 400 for the explicit purpose of winning at Indy in NASCAR and giving team owner Roger Penske one of the few trophies missing from his collection.
Montoya is not looking for a good points day Sunday and doesn’t care about a top-10 finish.
It’s checkered flag or bust.
“With the position I’m in here, it’s do or die,” Montoya said Friday. “I don’t care about finishing fifth or sixth or seventh.”
Montoya left NASCAR at the end of last season, when his contract was not renewed by Chip Ganassi. He jumped to IndyCar to drive for Ganassi rival Penske, who has given Montoya the opportunity to return to the Brickyard to get the win that got away.
Although he won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Montoya went 0-for-7 at Indy during his NASCAR days. But he was oh-so-close at least twice, and many believe Montoya coughed those wins away.
He led 116 laps in 2009 until a speeding penalty on his final pit stop cost him the win, and he was out front the next year with 20 laps remaining until an ill-timed caution ruined his day. Montoya went to pit road and got four tires while everyone else took two. Stuck deep in traffic with little time to make up the ground, he crashed and finished 32nd.
“Yeah, once or twice, and I probably coulda, shoulda and would’ve won the 500 this year as well,” he said. “But coulda, woulda and should’ve doesn’t count. At least I had a chance and I still think I’ve got a good chance this year.”
Montoya was back at the Brickyard in May for the Indianapolis 500, where he was confident he had a shot at drinking the celebratory milk for the second time in his storied career. Although he led three times for 16 laps, he finished a distant fifth as Penske teammate Helio Castroneves battled winner Ryan Hunter-Reay down to the wire. Now 14 races into his IndyCar return, Montoya has hit a groove and is beginning to resemble the driver who won the 1999 CART championship.
Since Indy, he’s scored three podium finishes and won his first race since 2010 at Pocono.
He feels his results could be much better.
“I was talking the other day to my Indy car race engineers and said, ‘It’s a shame the 500 was the first race this year on an oval,”’ Montoya said. “Now that I’ve raced more races, I look back on it and say, ‘I should have put this much more front wing in, I should have done this and should have done that but didn’t know what to expect.”’
Montoya doesn’t have that problem at Indy, where he’s familiar with the track and the car. Penske sent him to Michigan in June as a warm-up and he finished 18th, but used the opportunity to work with his pit crew for the first time and get accustomed to Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
What he learned – and struggled with on Friday – is that he doesn’t prefer the setup Logano and Keselowski use and needs track time to get the car to his liking.
“It seems like the race pace is pretty good and I think I’ve been pretty good here and I know what I want out of the car,” he said. “So that makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little better.”
Four-time Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson noted how quickly Montoya got to the winner’s circle in IndyCar, but wasn’t sure if there’s enough time between Friday’s opening practice and Sunday’s race start for Montoya to get back up to speed.
“I think it is a tough task,” Johnson said. “I think we all know and understand how talented he is in a race car ... it will take him time here. Hopefully he can get the laps that he needs to get up to speed. I think he’ll be toward the front. It’s just so tough to be the guy and to find that last half a tenth it takes to succeed when you’re out of the seat and not in the seat.
“That’s the part that he might not have, but with strategy and other opportunities that this racetrack provides. I’m not saying that he can’t win because he absolutely can win here.”
A starring role Sunday on the Yard of Bricks, kissing them in celebration alongside Penske, is all Montoya wants.
“Roger gave me the chance to come, they have great cars this year and he gave me the chance to come,” he said. “I’m just glad to be here.”