Montoya gives IndyCar the Indianapolis 500 it needed
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Extra! Extra! Juan Pablo Montoya still had to pay $2 to read all about it.
On a gray and blustery Monday morning, the Colombian spent more than two hours on the Yard of Bricks taking the customary Indianapolis 500 winner photos. His voice was shot, his mood soaring.
And when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s deliveryman rode a bicycle of newspapers over to Montoya and asked how many he wanted, Montoya asked for two. But he had no cash in the pockets of his firesuit, and a scramble ensued to locate the money needed for Montoya’s two papers.
With a seven-figure payout looming for winning Indy, Montoya could afford the purchase.
His second Indianapolis 500 victory generated the bold-print, feel-good headlines IndyCar needed after a month dominated by flying cars, safety concerns and a seriously injured driver.
But Montoya’s win served as a bright reminder that a classic comeback and a thrilling finish in front of a packed house can provide the series with the juice it needs to draw attention to the foundering series.
“It was some race when you think about how we started the month, all the issues, the negative things that came out about the racecars,” winning car owner Roger Penske said. “It was a safe race. The world saw the race that we wanted to see come out of Indianapolis, the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Oh, did IndyCar need that thrilling finish.
Three cars went airborne last week, leading to a chaotic qualifying day and prompting last-minute rule changes as the series tried to keep the cars on the ground. A day after that, James Hinchcliffe sustained a life-threatening leg injury in a crash unrelated to the flying cars. He’s expected to make a full recovery, but watched Sunday’s race from his hospital bed.
What Hinchcliffe and everyone else saw was a frantic battle between Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, the titans of open-wheel racing who fielded a combined nine cars. They were the class of the field in dueling Chevrolets and the two organizations combined to lead all but seven of the 200 laps.
It became a three-driver battle as the laps ticked off, with Montoya, teammate Will Power and Ganassi driver Scott Dixon clearly the drivers to beat.
Montoya had already charged from second-to-last back into the mix, and with the confidence he’d shown early in his career, he didn’t flinch when Dixon went wheel to wheel with him in a battle of nerves in the closing laps.
Once clear of Dixon, he went for the lead in a race in which few drivers wanted to be out front on the final lap. They were thought to be a sitting duck on point, lacking the ability to pull away and forced to defend a potential pass for the win.
Montoya went for it and held his breath. He believed his car was better than Power’s, and he was proved right when Power failed to catch him and snatch the win.
With that, Montoya was kissing the bricks for a second time, 15 years after his first victory. That win propelled him into Formula One, where he figured he’d end his career.
“I thought I’d retire about 35,” Montoya said Monday. “That’s when people retire in Formula One.”
But when he was 31 and couldn’t find a competitive F1 seat, he bolted for NASCAR in a reunion with Chip Ganassi, who had fielded his Indy 500 winning car in 2000.
Their time together was up and down: Montoya won two Sprint Cup races and gave the organization what remains its only berth in the Chase for the championship. But the team struggles wore him down, his confidence was shaken and Ganassi let him go at the end of 2013 to make room for upstart Kyle Larson.
Yet there was Ganassi as Montoya began his victory lap Sunday, offering his former driver a congratulatory hug.
“When I came to NASCAR, it was hard because like Chip told me, ‘We don’t have the best cars, but I want to work on something, work on having winning cars,'” Montoya said. “We were going in the right direction … you think you’re pretty good. You go into the next year and it kind of plateaus. It’s like somebody pulled the parachute.”
But Montoya is soaring again with Penske. His win Sunday was his second of the season, third since he returned to IndyCar last year, and he’s currently leading the points standings.
He’s a championship contender at 39 years old, and he drove a race that IndyCar so badly needed. Montoya says his stint in NASCAR is not to be discounted.
“I learned to race a lot smarter, to be honest,” he said. “I was impulsive. That was mentality, and it always worked.”
On Sunday, he was smart and he was fearless, and he was Juan Pablo Montoya of 15 years ago.
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