LATE ON SUNDAY afternoon in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a joyful Juan Pablo Montoya climbed from his car and pumped his fist overhead in celebration of his dramatic win in the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500. For the 39-year-old Montoya, who'd won this same race 15 years before, this 500-mile drive represented a triumphant finish to a far longer journey.
A year and a half ago Montoya might well have been the coldest property in motor sports. He had just been let go by Ganassi Racing—the team that in 2006 had boldly hired the Colombian open-wheel star away from Formula One to spearhead the organization's NASCAR enterprise. In his nine seasons racing stock cars, Montoya had produced only two wins and 24 top five finishes in 253 starts.
What's more, the flinty, supremely confident Montoya had also earned a reputation for not being the easiest driver to cozy up to. "An incident waiting to happen" is how NASCAR fans dismissed him. All of it made Montoya's chances of landing another gig racing stock cars or anything else, really—especially at his age—seem remote.
And then during a Sprint Cup race at Michigan in August 2013, just five days after Ganassi had announced its intention to part ways with Montoya at the end of the season, and with 14 Sprint Cup dates still to race, the lame-duck driver ran into Tim Cindric, the president of Team Penske. While Cindric wasn't well acquainted with Montoya, he was familiar enough with Montoya's non-stock-car racing rèsumè—which included the 1999 CART championship, as well as victories in the 2000 Indy 500, '03 Monaco Grand Prix and the '07, '08 and '13 24 Hours of Daytona—to make Montoya an offer he couldn't refuse.
June 1, 2015
"If you want to get in a race car, come get in our IndyCar," Cindric said.
"If you guys want me in there," Montoya replied, "I'm there. You just let me know."
The two connected again the following Monday, and a deal was quickly roughed out on a napkin. "No sponsors, no nothing," Cindric says. "We believed that he could be the one if we gave him the right stuff."
It's not as if Team Penske was hard up for talented open-wheel drivers when Cindric approached Montoya. Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner, had been on the team payroll since 2000. And Will Power, who would go on to take the '14 IndyCar series title, had been in the fold since '09. That fearsome one-two would make a combined 13 appearances on the podium in '14. (In the off-season Team Penske moved swiftly to further bolster its roster, grabbing IndyCar's top free agent—Simon Pagenaud, who was running third behind Power and Castroneves in points going into the final race before finishing the season ranked fifth.)
Montoya, it seemed, would have enough trouble just keeping up with his own garagemates and face a further disadvantage getting back up to speed on road courses—which are far more common in IndyCar than in NASCAR, where only two events, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, feature right turns. Montoya's rust was obvious in his average finish of 11.9 on road courses during the 2014 season. But his immediate success on oval speedways, where his average finish leaped to 5.2, suggested that Montoya hadn't been completely worn down by the years he spent turning laps in NASCAR's drawn-out affairs.
In fact, his stock car experience had just the opposite effect. "The long races taught me how to look at the bigger picture," he says, "how I've got to be there in the end, that if I have issues, it doesn't matter. I can overcome them."
He showed as much during an eventful May at the Brickyard, a month that saw five other drivers involved in serious crashes that came as IndyCar manufacturers Chevy and Honda introduced a revised aerodynamics package for speedway racing. After qualifying safely in 15th place, Montoya struggled early on Sunday, falling to 30th when Simona de Silvestro rear-ended him under caution, forcing Montoya to make a lengthy pit stop to replace his entire rear wing panel. Improbably he would storm all the way up to fourth with less than 20 laps to go and share the lead with Pagenaud, Power and the pole sitter, Ganassi's Scott Dixon, before leaving them all behind with three laps left.
The victory not only extends Montoya's lead in the IndyCar standings—a lead built on an uptick in his average road course finish (to 5.2)—and keeps him ahead of teammates Power (second in points), Castroneves (fourth) and Pagenaud (11th), it also puts Montoya back in contention for the title of best driver in American racing of his generation. The nominees range from single-circuit stars such as NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson (a six-time Cup champion) and Dario Franchitti (a four-time IndyCar champion and three-time 500 winner) to multidisciplinary standouts such as Tony Stewart (a three-time Cup champ and 1997 IRL series titlist) and Jacques Villeneuve (winner of the '95 Indy 500 and the '97 F1 world championship).
Now that he's back in a familiar series and—more important, perhaps—racing for a squad with a swagger to match his own, Montoya can only strengthen the case for himself. You get the feeling that he's only just starting to heat up.
The win puts Montoya back in contention for the title of his era's best driver in American racing.
In the Fast Lane
Even as the rejuvenated Juan Pablo Montoya has surged to the front of the IndyCar pack, a cohort of other drivers—both newcomers and a couple of familiar faces—appear poised to contend for victory.
Gabby Chaves, 21, Bryan Herta Autosport
Colombian-born like Montoya, he placed 16th in the 500 in his rookie outing. The fact that he has completed every race he's entered this season is a strong sign of his promise.
Simona de Silvestro, 26, Andretti Autosport
Apart from her run-in with Montoya, the Swiss pilot, once an F1 prospect, has acquitted herself well while running an abbreviated IndyCar schedule. Her fourth-place showing at Avondale earlier in the year bodes well for her chances of scoring a podium finish on another road course this season.
Sage Karam, 20, Chip Ganassi Racing
A standout high school wrestler and friend of the Andretti family in Nazareth, Pa., Karam saw his 500 end in the very first turn after taking ninth just a year ago. Look for him to bounce back in IndyCar's four remaining races on ovals, where he is among the strongest drivers.
Josef Newgarden, 24, CFH Racing
The Henderson, Tenn., native rallied for ninth after a scary practice-session crash at the Brickyard. He remains a contender on ovals and road courses, where he has already picked up a victory this year—the first of his career—at Birmingham.
Graham Rahal, 26, Rahal Letterman Lanigan
Saddled for years with the legacy of his father, Bobby, winner of the 1986 Indy 500, the Columbus, Ohio, native has at last emerged as a major contender. His fifth-place finish at the Brickyard was the highest among Honda cars and follows second-place showings at Birmingham and the Indy GP.