NASCAR return 'a no-brainer' for Montoya
June 11, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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When it came time to discuss the idea of returning to NASCAR to make one more run at the Brickyard, it didn't take Juan Pablo Montoya very long to tell Roger Penske yes.
"We talked about it, and we both thought it was a great idea," said Montoya, a two-time winner on NASCAR's premier series. "I mean, when he mentioned it to me, with the cars they’ve got right now, it was a no-brainer."
Montoya stepped away from NASCAR after last season, his seventh full campaign with Chip Ganassi Racing, and returned to his open-wheel roots with Penske. But although Montoya won races on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen and once made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, his stock-car resume still lacks an oval-track victory. Now he'll have two chances in Penske equipment, with Michigan this weekend serving as a table-setter for another attempt at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27.
In both races he'll work as a teammate to regular Penske NASCAR pilots Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who both have race victories to their name this season. Although Montoya never cracked the top-five at Michigan in his Sprint Cup Series career, he famously let two chances to win the Brickyard slip away -- in 2009 when he led 116 laps and dominated until a late pit-road speeding penalty, and the next year when he paced 86 until pit strategy went awry. His best finish at the Brickyard remains second in 2007, his rookie season in NASCAR.
"I think it's a great opportunity that I have to be in really competitive cars" Montoya said during a recent media event in Charlotte. "And (Penske) hasn't won the Brickyard, and I'm pretty good there."
As his track record, which includes an Indianapolis 500 victory in 2000, would attest. Although Montoya is once again a full-time open-wheel racer who is coming off a fifth-place finish in this year's Indy 500, the Colombia native and current Miami resident is well aware that he has unfinished business in a stock car on the same 2.5-mile track.
"It would be pretty special," he said of a potential Brickyard triumph. "It would be very special, because we threw away a lot of them. We were really good at that. So it would be nice."
But first comes Sunday at Michigan, where Montoya will slide behind the wheel of a stock car for the first time since his finale with Ganassi at Homestead last season. Greg Erwin, who won five Sprint Cup races with Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing and finished as Nationwide Series runner-up with former Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr. last year, will work as crew chief. Montoya is not scheduled to run either Sprint Cup road course races this season, because a pit crew is not available for either event.
The Montoya that will return to the Michigan garage area Friday is a more svelte version of his former self, down 15 pounds thanks to a cycling regimen. And he's clearly pleased to be in the employ of Penske, who owns 15 Indy 500 victories as well as the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, and was an owner whom Montoya says he idolized in a previous open-wheel stint that included the defunct CART circuit and Formula One.
"I feel really good. I feel really happy," Montoya said. "I think in a way, the change was really good. I don't really want to start comparing teams or anything, but the way things are handled (at Penske) -- it's awesome. Honestly, put it this way: when you grow up racing ... you looked at Team Penske like, 'Oh my god.' Everything was perfect. ... When you step back and look at all the history and everything that I've done, to say I've raced for Roger Penske -- that's a freaking honor."
It was Montoya's long friendship with Ganassi -- with whom he won the Indy 500 in 2000 -- that led the driver to NASCAR in the first place, and sustained him through personnel shakeups and performance difficulties that followed a breakthrough victory at Sonoma his first season, and a Chase berth in his third. Results dipped sharply over his final three NASCAR seasons, which all concluded with points finishes in the 20s, and midway through the 2013 campaign it was clear Montoya's contract would not be renewed.
The Ganassi team has rebounded somewhat this season, with Jamie McMurray winning the Sprint All-Star Race (although still ranked 23rd in the standings) and rookie Kyle Larson maintaining 10th place in points in the same No. 42 car and with the same crew chief that Montoya left behind. Asked to compare his current and former programs -- which both field entries in NASCAR and IndyCar -- Montoya said the biggest difference is that all Penske cars are housed under one roof in Mooresville, North Carolina, and overseen by team president Tim Cindric. Ganassi's teams are split between Indianapolis and Concord, North Carolina.
"The Ganassi organization, it's two different (sets of) management for both organizations. I think that’s the main reason one has so much success and the other one doesn't. The other one is like a heartbeat," Montoya said, referring to a vital sign that goes up and down.
"Jamie (won the All-Star Race), but next year, you don’t know if they're going to get better or they're gong to run 25th. You look at Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, Penske, all the big teams, and you know they're going to be there next year. With (Ganassi), you don’t know if they're going to be back there or (over) here. They've put a lot of things in place to get more stable, but if everything was under one roof, it would be a lot better."
Even so, Montoya knew -- or thought he knew -- the Penske reputation: serious men in starched buttoned-down shirts. As his occasionally freewheeling NASCAR teammates Keselowski and Logano might attest, things on the inside proved quite different. Still, at the outset Montoya was unsure of how he and a car owned known as "the Captain" might mesh.
"You look at Penske from the outside, and it looks really serious and really strict, and I'll be honest, that was a concern of mine," he said. "I was worried they were going to be too serious of an organization, and I wasn't going to fit it. And it was completely the opposite."
He had nothing to worry about. During open-wheel weekends, he finds Penske in his command trailer -- known as "RP1" -- watching NASCAR action on television. "He watches everything," Montoya said. "And I admire him, because he really cares. He loves racing. And that is really unbelievable."