Juan Pablo Montoya heads to Penske in 2014
September 16, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Despite discussions with several NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams, an offer to drive for IndyCar’s most successful team, Penske Racing, proved irresistible to former open-wheel champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who announced Monday he will drive a third car for the organization in 2014.
“If you really dream of an ideal position for a driver, and say you can race for Penske, that would be number one,’’ Montoya, 37, told reporters Monday. “When it was announced I wouldn’t be in the (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) 42 (Sprint Cup car), my number one choice was to be in a winning car. … You didn’t even have to think about it.’’
Penske Racing President Tim Cindric said the deal to sign Montoya was completed quickly -- so fast, in fact, the team doesn’t have a single sponsor lined up yet for Montoya’s No. 2 Chevrolet.
“Juan and I ran into each other on the (NASCAR) grid at Michigan (Aug. 18),’’ Cindric explained, “I said, ‘We ought to put you in that IndyCar’ and he said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ Casual conversation kind of turned in to the real deal and that’s how we ended up here today.’’
As for the lack of sponsorship, Cindric laughed and said, “We put the competitive element in play first and then we’ll sort everything else out.’’
Montoya -- the only driver with wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One’s Grand Prix of Monaco -- became a high-profile free agent last month when his Sprint Cup team owner Chip Ganassi announced that 21-year-old Kyle Larson would drive the No. 42 Target Chevrolet in 2014, becoming the first of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity graduates to secure a full-time ride in the sport’s premier Sprint Cup level.
Some were under the impression Montoya would stay in NASCAR and sign with Furniture Row Racing, which qualified for its first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with driver Kurt Busch. But although Montoya was impressed during a visit to the team’s shop and facilities in Denver recently, he said he felt it just came down to having a better chance at winning, driving for Penske’s IndyCar operation.
In seven NASCAR seasons driving for the Earnhardt Ganassi team, Montoya won the 2007 Rookie of the Year award in addition to nine Coors Light Poles wards and two races -- on both of NASCAR’s road courses, Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
He qualified for the 2009 Chase field and reminded reporters Monday that he is still the only Ganassi driver to make the Chase.
Montoya was adamant he doesn’t leave his NASCAR tenure with regrets but perhaps some unfinished business, reiterating his desire to win on an oval on one of the remaining nine tracks this season.
“I don’t feel like I wasted my years in NASCAR,’’ Montoya said. “It made me a lot better driver. . … I learned a lot, I became a lot smarter driver.
“We did win races and we did make the Chase. . … Did I want more success? Of course, yes. The reason we’re here today is because I want more success.’’
Montoya joked and ultimately conceded it could be a bit awkward in the upcoming months considering his current team owner Chip Ganassi has long been the Penske team’s primary rival in IndyCar. In fact, Montoya won the 1999 IndyCar championship and 2000 Indianapolis 500 for Ganassi.
Montoya said he tried to call Ganassi on Monday before the announcement, but that Ganassi was in Europe. The two did exchange text messages.
“He was very excited for me,’’ Montoya said. “We are good friends. … he had to make a decision this year [to replace Montoya] and I had the great chance to go with Roger Penske.”
As for his mixed loyalties in the next few months, Montoya laughed.
“I will have a little white flag, be very neutral there,’’ Montoya said. “I’m committed to Chip for the next nine races and working really hard to get that oval win before the end of the year.’’
With his success in both IndyCar and NASCAR, Montoya becomes a natural candidate to attempt the Memorial Day “Double” competing in both the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.
“I’ve learned never to say never,’’ Cindric said. “We certainly haven’t had any of those discussions, but if something makes sense out there we certainly wouldn’t close the door on it. But certainly with us, IndyCar racing will be his focus.’’
On Sept. 5, Montoya received a Hispanic Heritage Award for sports, an honor bestowed upon him by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation during its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.