INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Juan Pablo Montoya stormed onto the national scene in 1999 as a brash and fearless rookie who didn’t hesitate to go wheel-to-wheel with the biggest names.
The 23-year-old Montoya backed down from no one, didn’t hesitate to drive his car in the most precarious positions and charged hard in his pursuit of winning races. He collected seven wins and won the CART Series championship, then picked up three more series victories the next year.
But there was only one goal in 2000, the year Chip Ganassi Racing returned to the Indianapolis 500 after a four-year absence. Ganassi pushed hard for an Indy 500 win, and Montoya delivered in a monstrous way: The Colombian led 167 of the 200 laps as he routed the field and beat runner-up Buddy Lazier by more than seven seconds. Then he was gone, off to Formula One for 5 1/2 years and then seven full seasons in NASCAR. Montoya never looked back, never once considered another run at the Indianapolis 500.
Now 38, Montoya is back in IndyCar, driving for storied Team Penske, and after four races and two weeks of practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he’s comfortable again in the race car.
“I’m starting to get cockier and cockier and cockier in the car,” Montoya told The Associated Press. “Your confidence starts to grow. To be honest, I think I have a really good shot at winning it. I really do. With my oval experience in NASCAR and knowing this place really well, and being with Team Penske, chances of winning don’t come much better than that.”
That’s the attitude fans expected when Montoya made his return.
But it wasn’t just like riding a bike for Montoya, who needed months of testing to relearn the car. It was make-or-break time at the season-opener in March, where many fans thought Montoya would once again make the series look like his own personal playground.
He was not one of them.
“In the first race, I couldn’t outbrake anybody,” he said. “In NASCAR, you never pass anybody into the corner, you pass everybody out of the corner. Here, you don’t pass anybody out of the corner. Everything is in the braking, and I haven’t outbraked anybody in seven years. So I had to relearn.”
He finished fourth at Long Beach, the second race of the season, and started to get his feel again. Now, after four races, he has shown he is ready for Indy.
Montoya had the fastest four-lap average — 231.007 mph — among drivers ineligible to win the pole and will start 10th on Sunday.
“Things we try now are good, and when we tried them two months ago, I couldn’t drive it,” he said. “It definitely shows I’m getting more comfortable in the car, and then the speed starts getting better. It’s good now that we go to practices and I’m starting to get quicker than my teammates. It feels like we are headed in the right direction.”
Defending race winner Tony Kanaan praised Montoya’s ability to get work through his return while driving alongside Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power.
“He’s the right guy for that position,” Kanaan said. “When you get into a team that has Will Power and Helio, with so much success, you can’t have somebody with a weak frame of mind or very insecure because they would never last.
Within the first three races, they would get beat and they would get down. But now they better watch out, because he’s coming.”
Montoya said he now has a better understanding of how to make the car do what he wants. With each day, his speed improves and he believes he’s now on the same pace as Power and Castroneves.
Soon, he believes he could be the Montoya of 14 years ago.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful to NASCAR, but in NASCAR the limit is the car,” he said. “Here, for me, the limit is still me. And when the limit is me, and I figure out what my limit is, that’s going to be a problem.”