CLICK: Full race results from Pocono
When Juan Pablo Montoya was let go from his NASCAR Sprint Cup race seat by Chip Ganassi at the end of 2013, the Colombian said that his only concern deciding what he would do next was finding somewhere that gave him the opportunity to win races.
There had been some very vocal doubters when he opted for a return to US open wheel racing with Ganassi's arch rivals Penske in IndyCar, but after a near-miss at Houston last week he emphatically proved his point on Sunday afternoon by claiming a fine race victory at the unique Pocono Raceway tri-oval in what had proved to be the fastest 500-mile race ever run in the series.
"It's huge," he said in victory lane after the race. "I want thank Roger [Penske] for believing in me after how many years out of open-wheel, coming back and believing I could do it. Here we are. It's awesome that we could do it."
There was also praise from the man he had just beaten at Pocono: "Congrats to Montoya. Are you kidding me? This guy is unbelievable!" said his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves. "Coming back after all those years and winning a race? As soon as they signed him I knew he would be an asset, and a headache, for us!"
But even a 500-mile double-points race starts with the drop of just a single green flag, and it was pole winner Montoya who led the three-wide grid to the start line of the Tricky Triangle to get things going. However it was Montoya's Penske team mate Will Power who proved to be the first man into turn 1 by sweeping around the outside, while Montoya had his hands full warding off Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz for second place.
The race soon settled down and once the cars starting to get into fuel saving runs Montoya dropped back behind Munoz and Tony Kanaan, but was still able to maintain fourth position ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay comfortably enough as green flag pit stops loomed. Takuma Sato was in unexpectedly early on lap 26 with terminal engine issues, while Graham Rahal was in for a replacement head rest that was so crucial for getting through the high-G turns at Pocono.
Hunter-Reay was the first car in for a routine stop on lap 29 but it went sour as the team found problems with the #28's front suspension that sent him to the garage for frantic repairs that put him 17 laps down. The rest of the field cycled through pit lane in the ensuing laps, Montoya's early fuel saving allowing him to stay out a lap or two longer than most before he reported for fuel and tyres on lap 33. That helped put him back up to second place behind Power after the pit stops were completed, while Marco Andretti disappeared from the front and dropped to 18th after being hit with a pit lane speeding penalty.
The race celebrated reaching quarter distance with a new leader as 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan rocketed to the front ahead of Power and Montoya. They had been joined at the sharp end of the race by the third member of the Penske line-up, Helio Castroneves, after Munoz fell back to sixth place behind Ganassi's Ryan Briscoe. With still no sign of a caution, another round of green flag stops cycled through which made no impact on the top four as Kanaan continued to lead.
The green flag running continued uninterrupted to the next round of pit stops which began on lap 90, Kanaan once again emerging in the lead ahead of the Penske trio. However there was a disaster for Houston race winner Carlos Huertas whose just-lapped car stalled on the wrong side of pit lane with an electirla issue, obliging him to wait until everyone else had cycled through before the Dale Coyne Racing pit crew could run over and retrieve the #18 car and wheel it back to the garage area in retirement.
At the midway point of the race, Kanaan held a one second lead over Montoya, Power and Castroneves, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport's Mikhail Aleshin up to fifth ahead of Munoz, Briscoe and Ganassi's Scott Dixon in eighth place. A further round of pit stops around lap 120 did nothing to upset the status quo, but the next saw the Penske pair of Power and Montoya put their superior fuel mileage to good use to get back out in front of Kanaan and bring the Ganassi driver's spell in the lead to an end.
By this point the race had run for 158 laps without a single caution, a new record for an IndyCar Series race, but that came to an end when Graham Rahal suddenly lot the backend of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan car in turn 3. The car pirouetted more than a full revolution while managing to make only the lightest actual contact with the outside wall, but when it came to a rest the car was undriveable and a yellow was required to allow the safety team to attend the scene.
It was a surprise to see Kanaan and Josef Newgarden among those deciding to come back in and pit under the caution since they were still highly marginal for making it to the finish on one more stop; they dropped to 10th and 11th respectively at the back of the lead lap, while Power, Montoya and Castroneves continued the Penske domination leading the field back to green on lap 164. Not that there was much team camaraderie when the racing resumed, Montoya pulling out all the stops to get ahead of Power even to the point of sacrificing a front wing endplate as a result of contact with one of the #12's rear wheel guards.
Ironically if anything it was Power's car rather than Montoya's that suffered from the contact, as the Australian fell back to fourth place behind Carlos Munoz and Helio Castroneves. The #12 soon regained its momentum once again and got back past Castroneves, but when Helio threatened to re-take the position Power aggressively defended down the frontstretch and in the process attracted the attention of race control which deemed it a clear block and served a black flag ordering Power to serve a drive-thru penalty that dropped him to the back of the lead lap with 27 laps remaining - meaning there was not enough time for him to battle his way back without help from a caution.
As the finish approached it all came down to the timing of the final round of pit stops. Kanaan and Newgarden's attempt to make it to the finish fell flat when no helpful cautions materialised in time to help them make the requisite mileage, and so even they were forced came in for one final splash and dash with to make it to the finish, Kanaan making his stop just four laps shy of the chequered flag.
That popped Juan Pablo Montoya back into the lead just in time for the final minutes of the race ahead of Castroneves, Munoz, Briscoe, Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, with Mikhail Aleshin holding on to seventh ahead of Newgarden and Marco Andretti finishing in ninth just ahead of Will Power, with Tony Kanaan rejoining right behind him in 11th at the rear of the lead lap.
It was not only Juan Pablo Montoya's first race win in the Verizon IndyCar Series since his return to US open wheel racing at the start of the year, it was at the head of a Penske one-two and in a valuable double-points event. Helio Castroneves now moves up into a tie in the championship standings with his team mate Will Power, with whom relationships might be a touch frosty for the next few days after that 'blocking' moment. Montoya moves to within 55 points of his team mates and is up into fourth place behind Simon Pagenaud as the title race tightens up heading into next weekend's event at Iowa.
See full race results from Pocono