BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Juan Pablo Montoya is still in the transition phase, where a fourth-place finish is good enough.
The grace period won’t necessarily last long for Montoya, who returned to IndyCar after five seasons in Formula One and seven in NASCAR. He heads into race No. 3 Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park with expectations still of contending quickly after the Top-5 finish at Long Beach, Calif.
Montoya saw no need to get overly aggressive gunning for an even higher spot, a play-it-safe approach that is unlikely to continue much deeper into the season.
“I think it was the right thing under the circumstances,” Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance, said Friday. “Later in the season, he’ll be disappointed with fourth and we’d certainly be disappointed if later in the season we were happy with fourth. He’s smart. He hasn’t had all the success that he’s had without understanding when to go and when not to.
“Certainly, I think later in the season that mind-set might be a bit different.”
In the meantime, Montoya is still effectively a rookie at new tracks like Barber, a 2.38-mile road course. He practiced at the track in much cooler conditions back in February. The goal for Montoya was to crack the top 10 at Long Beach on April 13, and he easily topped that standard.
Now, Cindric said the team is hoping Montoya makes it into the second qualifying session and secures a Top-12 start.
“Barber’s going to be a bit of a challenge for him, because it’s a really close race,” Cindric said. “The amount of grip that there is, it’s very hard to pass.
“I think he’s somebody that’s on cold tires here because it’ll be a three-stop race. I think you’ll see him gain more spots in the pits but qualifying will be tough for him again.”
Montoya had the eighth-fastest lap in practice Friday, at 1:09.1484. The fourth-place finish at Long Beach was better than he’d had in practice or testing, but there are further indications he’s getting closer to his form of 14 years ago. Beating Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power in a testing session is a step forward, too.
“We tested last week in Texas and I was quicker than my teammates,” Montoya said. “I think that’s a good sign.”
He won his first pole position in NASCAR some 40 miles down Interstate 20 at Talladega Superspeedway.
That move came after Montoya spent five seasons in Formula One following his Indianapolis 500 win in 2000. Now, he’s back dealing with both technical and not so technical changes involved in getting comfortable in the driver’s seat in open-wheel racing, from adjusting to the braking zones to just getting comfortable.
“With NASCAR you drive with the elbows out, because the seat is really big so you have to drive with the elbows out,” Montoya said. “Here you have no elbow room, so you do a little wrist movement. In the beginning it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Now it’s good. I got in the car (Friday) morning and it’s becoming more natural.”
The next stop will be the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, followed by the Indy 500. Barber, which he calls “a really technical track,” is another opportunity to get better before IndyCar’s signature race.
“This is the last chance, the way I look at it, to get really good before we get to Indy,” Montoya said. “Indy’s the key. We want to really peak at Indy, so we’ll see.”
In Alabama, he has the benefit of teammates Power — a two-time winner at Barber — and Castroneves, who won the track’s inaugural IndyCar race in 2010.
Castroneves isn’t sure the veteran Montoya needs many pointers.
“He certainly came up very quick,” Castroneves said. “His background is with open-wheel, so it’s like riding a bicycle. Everything is coming back. There was not much advice from us.”
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