Commentary

Montoya rejuvenated at Penske

Updated: November 25, 2013, 5:01 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

SEBRING, Fla. -- Juan Pablo Montoya had made just 20 laps in a Penske Racing machine, but he was clearly enthralled by the early moments of his return to open-wheel racing. Salt-and-pepper hair roiling in the gusts buffeting Sebring International Raceway on Monday -- it had been blacker when he last raced an Indy car in the CART series in 2000 -- the 38-year-old was speaking ever quicker, eyes ever wider and gesturing demonstratively about the morning's escapades.

The torque was great, the brakes less so, and the wheel a surprising challenge. So far, so good.

[+] EnlargeJuan Pablo Montoya
Brant James/ESPNJuan Pablo Montoya on his new IndyCar seat at Penske Racing: "Going fast, I'm not worried about going fast. I'll drive the hell out of it and that's it."

"Huge smile, ear-to-ear, every lap," he said.

Montoya's decision to sign with Penske in September and create a powerhouse IndyCar Series lineup that includes Will Power and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves marked a third major career evolution in a decade. The transition would not be without effort, even for someone who has proved himself to be one of the few on the planet capable of making such attempts successfully.

"Going fast, I'm not worried about going fast. I'll drive the hell out of it and that's it," he said. "You have to be smart about how you do it. That's what it's all about. Getting to understand the car and the people I'll be working with."

Adjusting to the norms of his new conservative-image team after years with the more rambunctious Chip Ganassi as an owner would remain a work in progress, too. When discussing his newfound access to his performance data, Montoya gushed: "With [Penske] it's like, you sit in the car and they come, they show you, and it's like, 'Ah. OK, I'm braking like a p---- here."

Team president Tim Cindric, standing abreast, winced. No matter. His new team bought into Montoya for the whole package, and that edginess might be just what the organization requires to finally unseat a Ganassi organization that has won five of the past six IndyCar titles, as Penske drivers withered in clutch moments.

Cindric said that while veterans Castroneves and Power should help Montoya bridge the gap from representative lap times to race-winning driver, Montoya's mental toughness could help Penske win championships like the multitudes he feels the team has let slip away recently.

"Trying to just understand that championship mentality, it's something that obviously we've failed the past four, five, six years," Cindric said. "We should have at least half of those championships. We don't. The other guys were able to execute when they needed to. Maybe Juan can bring us that type of mentality. He's very good at trying to see though the complexities, or whatever, and I think he's learned a lot from Formula One to NASCAR."

[+] EnlargeJuan Pablo Montoya
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesJuan Pablo Montoya wound up 21st in the 2013 Sprint Cup standings with four top-5s and eight top-10s.

Power has led the standings entering the final race three times in the past four seasons only to finish second in points. Castroneves lost the lead in the next-to-last weekend in 2013 as Ganassi's Scott Dixon won his third title. Montoya shared a No. 12 Chevrolet with Power on Monday of the two-day test. Castroneves attended on Monday but did not drive.

Montoya was behind the wheel for 20 of 30 laps in the morning and, according to the team, was roughly three-tenths of a second off Power's pace.

Power seemed borderline giddy in having a teammate whose style, he said, was shown through trace data collection to be "very similar" to his in terms of braking and driving, and one who comes from an F1 background, allowing him to "have a guy whose got such serious credentials to compare myself against."

"I know he's going to be bloody quick," Power said, "and with quick teammates, that just raises the bar. You just learn from each other. He has a lot of experience from F1, CART and even ovals from NASCAR. It was exactly what I expected him to do when he got in the car. I didn't expect anything less."

Montoya will benefit, Cindric said, as part of a credentialed lineup. Montoya thrived in the 1999 and 2000 seasons with Ganassi's CART team competing with and against Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser.

"He hasn't had a successful teammate," Cindric said. "That's not to say he hasn't had a good teammate. He just hasn't had a successful one to gauge off of and I think we'll be able to give him a gauge to compare himself to."

Montoya won 10 of 40 CART races and produced 13 podium finishes in 1999 and 2000 -- winning the championship as a rookie and the Indianapolis 500 the next season -- before leaving for a six-year run in Formula One. He won seven races and pressed Michael Schumacher for the 2003 crown driving for Williams before falling out of favor with his McLaren Mercedes team in 2006. Ganassi bought out the remainder of Montoya's contract and lured him back to the United States for the next major challenge of his career -- NASCAR -- later that year.

Montoya won two NASCAR races -- on the road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen -- and finished a career-best eighth in 2009. His stock car career was otherwise awash in unmet expectations, however, numerous crew changes and ultimately growing pressure from Ganassi to perform. Unfortunately for Montoya, his NASCAR career is likely to be best remembered -- at least on video -- for a 2012 incident in which he crashed into a jet drier under caution in the Daytona 500.

Cindric said he thinks Montoya still has "unfinished business in the stock car world" and speculated that after a successful repatriation to open wheel racing he could make spot starts for Penske's NASCAR operation.

"At the right time, putting him in one of our cars, that we feel is competitive, you know it would be an interesting thing to do," Cindric said. "It may be interesting for everybody."


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Montoya told The Associated Press that his 14-year relationship with Ganassi had seemed "awkward" and "a lot" more tense after he informed the owner he join his IndyCar rival, although Ganassi first announced in August that he would not re-sign Montoya and later announced 21-year-old Kyle Larson as his replacement in the No. 42 Chevrolet.

Scant few have traded their Ganassi red for Penske's red and black. Ryan Briscoe joined Penske in 2008 after contesting his first two seasons with Ganassi beginning in 2005. Emerson Fittipaldi joined Penske in 1990 after racing the previous CART seasons for a Patrick Racing team Ganassi co-owned.

David Stremme began his full-time Sprint Cup career in Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge in 2005 and moved into Penske's No. 12 Dodge in 2009 after being fired after the 2007 season.

No driver, according to Penske officials, has joined Ganassi after first racing for Penske.

Montoya wasn't interested in making any comparisons between the styles or processes of the organizations on Monday, but observations flowed. He came to Penske, he said, to win.

"I had seven years where it's been hard because I know I can frickin' do it," he said. "It gets to a point where you get to the weekend and you never think about, 'Aw, we're going to win this week.' Apart from two weekends of the year, you go, 'Ah, if it's really good, we might run fifth.' And if you've got a car to win, you're thinking, 'Ah, when are we going to screw it up?' The mentality needs to change. I think being here gives me that."

The feeling is mutual.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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