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Indy 500: Even better second time around for Montoya

Juan Pablo Montoya showed you really can go home and have it be just as good as you remember, as he clinched his second Indy 500 victory 15 years after the first.
A lot has changed since Juan Pablo Montoya last stood in Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 2000. Back then had already become Champ Car World Series champion in his rookie season, and then in his first entry in the Indianapolis 500 he had come out on top as champion once more, the seventh-youngest winner in the event's history at the tender age of 24 years, 8 months and 8 days.

Such a rush of early success launched him into orbit as far as motorsports were concerned, and a career in F1 with Williams and McLaren led on to seven seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But success in both championships proved rather more elusive than it had at Indy, and by the end of 2013 Montoya was at a crossroads when he was dropped by his NASCAR team and found himself wondering what to do next.

He opted for a return to where it all began for him, back in US open wheel competition now under the auspices of the Verizon IndyCar Series. Many felt that this would be a mistake - that Montoya could end up being humiliated and viewed as a washed-up has-been. But Montoya himself never had any doubt, and in any case all he wanted was to to go somewhere that would allow him to be in with a shot of winning races unlike the frustrating situations he'd found himself in F1 and NASCAR. With Team Penske and its owner Roger Penske, he found the chemistry that he was looking for.

"Something that Roger has is Roger loves racing," Montoya explained. "He has a passion of winning and being the best out of everything he does. When you can be part of that, it's exciting. You know what I mean? I'm very blessed to be able to be a Penske driver and to have success with him. It's huge.

"I know what it means to Roger and everybody at Team Penske to get this win," he added. "I thanked him for giving me the opportunity and believing in me that I could get the job done. I'm happy I can prove them right.

"It's cool when you're here: if you don't have success, it's your own fault. They give you all the tools to win, give you great people to work with. I mean, for me I've been over the moon here."

Even before this weekend, Montoya had already won two IndyCar races at Pocono (in 2014) and St Peterburg (at the start of 2015). He's also currently leading the Verizon IndyCar Series championship points standings. The only problem with being at a team like Penske is that it's packed out with some of the best drivers in the world, including Will Power, Helio Castroneves and now Simon Pagenaud, all of whom have access to the same level of technical expertise as Montoya himself and who immediately become his biggest rivals on the track.

"It's hard because it's four cars. To be honest with you, Simon had the best car today. When I was running third, he was running behind Dixon, I was like, How the hell is he that close? He was comfortable right there. I couldn't believe how good he was."

Of the four Penske drivers Montoya had been looking the least likely to win coming into this weekend, although he himself had always appeared convinced that 2015 would be his moment no matter how he had struggled in qualifying. He was starting from only 15th position, while his three Penske team mates were all camped out on the front two rows. Being in the midfield also dealt him a further early blow when he was rear-ended by Simona de Silvestro while they were running under a safety car for Saga Karam's first corner accident on lap 1.

"I made a bit of a mistake at the restart where I ran into Montoya," admitted the Swiss driver, who damaged her front wing in the incident. "It didn't hurt him as much as it did us, I guess. It was a long day."

"That's what happens when you qualify bad, you find yourself with the wrong crowd," observed Montoya. "Simona didn't do it on purpose. She wants to prove she's that good. She has a lot of speed. But when you're racing for a job, it's a lot harder."

The contact ripped off the right rear wheel cover on the #2 and forced Montoya to pit, putting him at the back of the field for the restart and seemingly setting him up for a long afternoon of damage limitation while his team mates all made hay while the sun shone at the front. But Montoya wasn't about to give up without a fight just yet - it was a long race ahead, after all.

Although he made up plenty of places during the next stint, there was more ill fortune for the Colombian during the next round of pit stops when he came in hot and slid through his pit stall. He had to be pushed back into place for the tyre changers to be able to get to work and even ran over his air hose, although a relaxation in the series rules this season means that earned him a warning rather than a drive-thru penalty as it would have done in previous years.

After that it was just a long haul working his way forward and making the best use of cautions and pit stops when they came. Although the lead of the race still seemed to be dominated by Montoya's team mates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud and a brace of Ganassis comprised of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, slowly and ever so surely the #2 car started to close in and become a factor in the second half of the race.

"You give that guy the bit and put it in his mouth, and he doesn't give up," said Roger Penske. "Just to see Juan, during the race, coming up, I knew he had a good car. If you know him, he's a fighter."

“After a challenging start to the race, Juan Pablo Montoya and his team showed an incredible ability to come back to win the 99th running of the Indy 500,” added Chevrolet's Jim Campbell, US vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports. "They demonstrated a never-give-up approach every lap and every pit stop. Juan simply drove a great race."

"We executed today beautifully," agreed Montoya. "Made a couple small mistakes early, but then we got our composure back and came back ... If you're going to make a mistake, make it early. Late is hard. But it is what it is, we all make mistakes."

Set-up adjustments were crucial to getting Montoya into play: "My car was well-balanced, you wouldn't believe how much front wing we put in that car today," Montoya explained. "It was a lot. Every stop. It just got to a point that I could actually run behind [Dixon] pretty easy, run wide open behind him.

"What really matters is the last 15 laps. That was fun racing," Montoya added. "Probably the best racing. Between Will and Dixon, we have a lot of respect for each other. We understand the risk and we understand when they got you. So it makes it fun.

"It was a matter of Dixon not getting a good run. The second guy is always in the draft. You want to make the move before he blocks you so you can get the draft of the leading car so you can complete the pass."

When long-time leader Dixon started to struggle with handling issues in the closing laps of the race, and with Simon Pagenaud falling back with front wing damage and Tony Kanaan crashing out on lap 153, the battle ultimately came down to a head-to-head between Montoya and his team mate, reigning series champion Will Power.

It was a long-awaited high-stakes showdown that many expected to produce some of the best racing seen in the series in modern times. Truth is, it exceeded even those heady expectations as the two held nothing back, the lead going first one way and then the other with just inches separating the two cars as they hurtled round at speeds of almost 225mph.

"The key thing is you've got to figure out how to make your move without hurting yourself," Montoya noted. "If you know you're not going to make it, you have to bail early enough. You still screw up. You don't want to screw up, but you do. The question is how big you screw up.

"To be honest with you, at that point with eight laps to go, you have no idea I had a shot at the winning," Montoya continued, recalling those final laps. "We looked so equal. My car started coming in better, coming in better, got better and better and better at the end.

"It was good. I got a hell of a run. I think Will had a bit of understeer in the car and I think that really played into our hands because he couldn't get close to me out of turn two.

"We got to turn two, he was like right on me. Oh, my God, please. I looked in the mirror, 'Where are you? I'll follow you, follow you, take over,'" Montoya added, admitting that he had no idea until the last two corners whether he was really in with a shot at sealing the victory.

"I come out of turn two, Will pushed, I had to push, the gap got bigger. Turn four, he wasn't close enough. I got this!" he laughed in delight as he recalled the final seconds of the race. "I was screaming. I was so happy.

"I know Will is probably disappointed right now he finished second, but in a couple months he's going to look back and say, Man, that was fun. That was a hell of a race," Montoya said. No one was disagreeing.

"Hats off to Montoya and Will, those two guys battled it out, they battled it safe," was the view on the epic finish from Penske president Tim Cindric. "I'm good with it. I feel bad for Will, but somebody's got to be second. This guy [Montoya] did it all."

Even Power was in agreement: "It was an intense battle. I kind of forget where I was in the end, I was so immersed in the race itself," he said. "There was some great battling out there. I have to give it to the drivers in the race. Fair, clean, but close and hard. That's all you can ask for.

"I just didn't spend enough time in second place understanding what I needed from the car," he mused. "It's a difficult position, right? If it goes yellow, you win the race. You want to lead so I really fought hard to make sure I was leading all the time.

"I just had too much push when he got by, I had to lift on that last lap ... When I lifted in three for understeer, I knew it was over. There's no way you're going to get to him. No way," he said. "Anywhere else I'd be happy with second, but here it sucks ... Still, Team Penske one-two - pretty good!"

As far as Montoya himself was concerned, the superb racing in the final few laps was absolute proof that the IndyCar Series had been right to introduce new bespoke aerodynamic bodywork kits to spice up the on-track action, despite all the anxiety in the build-up to this weekend's race following several instances of cars flipping up into the air which many put down to design problems with the new components, and especially those designed by Chevrolet used on both the Penske and Ganassi cars. However on Sunday there wasn't a single occurrence of such problems despite several crashes, and the race winner was quick to endorse the new dimension that the aero kits had brought to this year's Indy 500.

"For me personally, I think the aero kits have been a huge plus," Montoya insisted. "We had that good of racing because of the aero kits. You can follow people. Chevy brought really good equipment. The motors at the end were really, really good. Our cars were amazing.

"I think IndyCar is going in the right direction," he added. "Of course, you're going to get a lot of people criticize it, look for the bad side of everything. But, no, it's really cool."

The last time that Montoya found his way to Victory Circle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it set him on the path to F1 and subsequently to NASCAR. But that journey has been travelled and Montoya has no intention of getting carried away second time around, insisting that he was very much here in IndyCar to stay.

"I'll be here. I told Roger, As long as you want me, I'll be here," he said, adding that he didn't regret his time in the other championships - even crediting his lacklustre seven seasons in stock cars for giving him the skills he needed to win this weekend's race. "NASCAR helped me understand 500-mile races, how they need to run and everything.

"It's just experience," he insisted. "You're older, you're wiser, you understand where the races are won, where they're lost. You know what I mean? You make less mistakes. The biggest difference is just experience."

Montoya's time in NASCAR, and his first Indy 500 win in 2000, came when he was racing for Chip Ganassi. Now he's competing for Ganassi's arch rival in the open wheel series, but Montoya insisted that despite the way their association ended when Ganassi dropped him from the NASCAR squad there was no lasting acrimony or estrangement between them,.

"[He] just congratulated us," said Montoya. "We're still good friends. He made a business decision [to drop me from NASCAR.] That's what it was. He brought his A game, we did as well. I think the big difference is, Roger has four bullets to win [and] Chip has two maybe, where we have four."

Montoya certainly deserves all the congratulations he receives this week. With a 15 year interval between his two Indy 500 triumphs, he's just shattered the previous existing record of ten years for the gap between speedway wins at Indianapolis. While that record may itself be broken somewhere down the line, it's surely going to be a very long time indeed before anyone else manages to win Indy 500s in two different centuries as Montoya can now claim to have done.

"For me, I think '99, 2000 was the start of my career. I was really young. It was just the start of it. We came here, had a really good car, we dominated," he said. "I'll tell you the truth: this one, when you have to work for it that hard, it's exciting when you come on top of races like this."

And pretty exciting to watch, too, as nearly a quarter of a million race fans present at Indianapolis Motor Speedway will attest after being on hand to witness an undoubted thrilling finish to this year's greatest spectacle in motor racing.

Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
Juan Pablo Montoya is congratulated by his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves after clinching victory in the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday May 24 2015. (Photo by: Chris Jones for IndyCar Media)
Juan Pablo Montoya celebrates after the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday May 24 2015. (Photo by: Chris Owens for IndyCar Media)
Juan Pablo Montoya celebrates after the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday May 24 2015. (Photo by: Chris Owens for IndyCar Media)
Juan Pablo Montoya celebrates with team owner Roger Penske after winning the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday May 24 2015. (Photo by: Joe Skibinski for IndyCar Media)
Juan Pablo Montoya meets the press after winning the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday May 24 2015. (Photo by: Dana Garrett for IndyCar Media)
Alexander Rossi - Andretti Autosport   [pic credit: Indycar Media/Joe Skibinski]
Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske) celebrates winning the 2016 IndyCar title with victory at Sonoma   [pic credit: Chris Owens]
Simon Pagenaud - Team Penske   [pic credit: IndyCar Media/Chris Owens]
Ed Jones celebrates winning the 2016 Indy Lights championship
Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) celebrates at Laguna Seca
Kyle Kaiser - Juncos Racing
Ed Carpenter Racing crew working on the boss` car   [pic credit: IndyCar Media/Chris Owens]
Indy Lights action
Indy Lights title contender Santiago Urrutia, Ed Jones, Dean Stoneman, Felix Serralles, Kyle Kaiser and Zach Veach   [pic credit: IndyCar Media]
Santiago Urrutia - Schmidt Petersen Motorsport
Will Power - Team Penske
Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) on his way to victory at Watkins Glen   [pic credit: Indycar media/Chris Owens]
Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) on his way to pole at Watkins Glen   [pic credit: Indycar media/Chris Owens]

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