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Montoya comfortable, fast in Indy pursuit

July 26, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Montoya comfortable, fast in Indy pursuit
After seven years in a Sprint Cup car, one year away feels like nothing to the Penske driver

SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- For Juan Pablo Montoya, slipping back into NASCAR feels as effortless as pulling on a comfortable sweater.

"You know how to do everything. You know how practice works. You know how qualifying works," said the two-time road course race-winner at the sport's top level. "You know where you need to go to sign in, and where to drive around in the garage. It's fine."

Understandably so, given that Montoya spent seven full seasons wheeling stock cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and never came closer to winning on an oval track than he did right here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This weekend, he's back for another run at the Brickyard, driving an entry fielded by Roger Penske, who owns the open-wheel car in which Montoya now regularly competes.

It's the second leg of a two-race stock-car foray which began last month at Michigan International Speedway, where Montoya finished 18th. That result didn't diminish Montoya's hopes at Indianapolis, where he won the 500 in 2000 had a pair of dominant Brickyard runs spoiled by mistakes.

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"I feel like coming here, we've got a good shot," Montoya said. "I think Michigan, what we wanted to do is understand the cars a little, understand the team and everything. I think we missed the car a little bit setup-wise, and I think one of the key things is getting the car closer. We felt we were pretty good in practice … so I think if we can get the car close, we'll be pretty good. It seems like the race pace is pretty good, and I think I've been pretty good here and I know what I want out of the car, so that makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little bit better."

Montoya's Brickyard effort is bolstered by the presence of Brian Campe, his current open-wheel engineer, who also has a wealth of experience in NASCAR. Campe is working with crew chief Greg Erwin, who won five Sprint Cup races with Greg Biffle and nearly the Nationwide Series championship with Sam Hornish Jr. at Penske last season.

"Greg seems to be a really nice guy," Montoya said of Erwin. "He's so easy to work with. It's fun. He really gets the message. He's very clear on how everything is going to go, and makes it so much easier than anything I experienced before. It's pretty cool."

One thing is certain -- Montoya's No. 12 car is fast. The Colombian said his race pace in practice compared favorably to that of Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who has won three times this season on NASCAR's top circuit. Montoya also qualified eighth on a tight 2.5-mile track where starting position is often critical. Even so, jumping back into a stock car after so much time away will undoubtedly present challenges, even for a driver whose return to open-wheel racing has already netted one victory this season.

"I think it is a tough task," said four-time Indy winner Jimmie Johnson. "I think we all know and understand how talented he is in a race car, and recently in IndyCar. You look at the time it took to get back up to speed there, it took half a season or something to get going. It will take him time here. Hopefully he can get the laps that he needs to get up to speed. I think he'll be toward the front. It's just so tough … to find that last half a tenth it takes to succeed when you're out of the seat and not in the seat. That's the part that he might not have, but with strategy and other opportunities that this race track provides, I'm not saying that he can't win. Because he absolutely can win here."

Montoya has certainly shown that before. In 2009 with Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, he led 116 laps and appeared en route to a first oval-track victory when a late speeding penalty on pit road relegated him to an 11th-place finish. The next year he led 86 laps from the pole, but fell back into traffic after pit strategy backfired, and ended up 32nd after being involved in a crash.

"Yeah, once or twice I probably woulda, coulda, shoulda," Montoya said. "… But coulda, woulda and shoulda doesn't count."

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