LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — In open wheel or a stock car, Juan Pablo Montoya knows how to top the speed chart at Pocono Raceway.
Driving for Team Penske in his open-wheel return after seven years in NASCAR, the Colombian knocked off Penske teammate Will Power on the final qualifying run Saturday.
Montoya had a two-lap average of 223.871 mph for both a track record and his first career IndyCar pole.
“I feel at home in the car now,” he said.
Montoya won a Pocono pole in NASCAR in August 2012. He also won 14 open-wheel poles in CART in 1999-2000.
Carlos Munoz joined Montoya and points leader Power on the front row. Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe completed the second row.
Montoya had the good fortune of going out last after one driver after another took a turn atop the leaderboard. Helio Castroneves, Andretti, Sato and Power all set the one-lap track record and held the provisional pole. Montoya snagged it when it counted.
Power and Castroneves are 1-2 in the standings for Roger Penske. Montoya is fifth and climbing fast after three straight top 10s.
“He’s brought a lot of good stuff to the team, from the very beginning, actually,” Power said. “The experience of all three of us is really helping push the cars in the right direction. The beauty about driving for Penske is that you’ve got the resources to develop what you want.”
Indianapolis 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay will start ninth. Hunter-Reay is the only driver who can win the open-wheel series’ Triple Crown. Pocono and Fontana join the Indianapolis 500 as the three races that use three-wide starts, run 500 miles and award double points. Unlike last season, there is no title sponsor or $1 million prize for a three-race sweep.
IndyCar ran a Triple Crown at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario from 1971-1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indy, Pocono and Michigan. Only Al Unser won all three races in 1978.
Defending Pocono winner Scott Dixon will start 15th. Dixon’s IndyCar season could have been summed up by what he saw in his role as judge at Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest: So much of it has been tough to swallow.
Dixon’s spot as IndyCar’s top dog could come to a crashing halt unless the reigning series champion has a reversal of fortune over the final races. He’s stuck well behind Power in ninth in the standings. Dixon has only one podium finish and was 19th and 18th in last weekend’s Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader.
Time is running short for Dixon to make a serious push at a fourth career IndyCar championship.
“We’ve got to go for race wins,” Dixon said after qualifying. “There’s no other way of looking at it.”
Dixon might find Pocono Raceway as the perfect track to ignite a winning streak — he has done it before. Dixon was seventh in the standings last season headed into Pocono when he took the checkered flag as part of a Ganassi podium sweep. He swept the doubleheader at Toronto and his three-race winning streak catapulted him into championship contention. He’d win again at Houston and clinched his third title at Fontana.
“Right now, we’re not as comfortable as we should be,” he said. “We’ve probably been a little bit aggressive in some areas. A lot of mistakes. Even I’ve made some mistakes.
“That’s racing. It goes your way sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Mark this year down as, it doesn’t.
Dixon escaped the pressure for a spell with a day trip to New York for the hot dog eating contest. Joey Chestnut packed away 61 franks and buns to hold onto his coveted mustard yellow winner’s belt.
“It was definitely eye-opening and pretty fun, actually,” Dixon said. “It was a good time. I think the crowd and the people watching was pretty interesting. Some of the scenes out there were pretty funny.”
Turned out, Dixon was hungry for more than a win.
“I thought probably after watching it, I wasn’t going to want a hot dog,” he said. “I actually had a hot dog as soon as (it ended).”