Tenacity is behind Montoya's spot atop IndyCar points

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya waits for his turn to practice at the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

Detroit — When Roger Penske recruited Juan Pablo Montoya as a driver, before the 2014 season, it raised more than a few eyebrows.

Montoya won the International F3000 championship in 1998, essentially a minor league for Formula One. And he won the CART championship in an Indianapolis-style racer, competing with the Indy Racing League, in 1999.

But there also were some lean years, including five seasons in Formula One, in which his highest position in the final standings was third, and seven in NASCAR, with too few victories.

His driving was criticized as too aggressive, some said to the point of recklessness. Others suggested he had a prickly personality.

But if there is any dominant "character guy" in the IndyCar series, it is Penske. And although Montoya was being courted for an eighth season in NASCAR, Penske persuaded him to return to Indy racing.

Now, in his second season, Montoya came to Detroit in first place in the series.

Last week, he won his second Indianapolis 500, after starting 30th, driving to the leaders, falling to the back of the pack again after an accident and then, in a fine example of shrewd, fierce racing, crossing the finish line first.

On Friday, he qualified third for the first Dual in Detroit, to be run today, putting himself within striking distance of his first win on Belle Isle.

Careers are a little bit like racing, Montoya said.

"You play it as it comes," said the 39-year-old Colombian. "You get a couple of choices or opportunities and you take them or you leave them."

He said he was thrilled to be at the wheel for Penske's 16th career win, in the 500.

"I was just so happy, with Indy," he said. "We worked so hard to get number 16 for Roger, and to be part of that group of drivers who has won Indy for Roger is pretty special."

Montoya's resume is so varied, it rivals two great American racers, Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney.

While Andretti and Gurney won more often, Montoya has accomplished some considerable feats.

He is the only driver to have won the CART title, the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona, all on the first attempts.

Having won at Indy and the Monaco Grand Prix in Formula One, Montoya is one of only two active drivers (Jacques Villeneuve) to win two legs of the Triple Crown of Motor Sport, which also includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

"I left Formula One because I wasn't having fun," Montoya said. "NASCAR, I was never in a winning car, and that made it tough.

"I had an opportunity to stay in NASCAR, but in talking to Roger about doing IndyCar with him, it's hard to turn down great opportunities like that.

"I knew it was going to be a lot of work and a really uphill battle to get back to my IndyCar form and my open-wheel form. But we are working hard to get there."

Winning in Detroit would be another giant step forward.

Penske seems continually pleased with Montoya, and always matter-of-fact in describing his decision to pursue the driver.

"Well, look, you don't win the Indianapolis 500 two out of the three times you drive it, unless you are a pretty good racer," Penske said.

"Certainly, he's tenacious.

"That's what he's known for. People, when they get around him, they know he's not going to give an inch."

Of all the forms of motor sport in which he has competed, Montoya says he prefers IndyCar.

"I've done all of them and the most fun racing and the most balanced racing is this," he said, referring to the series.

The key, he said, is the evenness of the competition — unlike Formula One, for example, where the Mercedes team now reigns virtually unchallenged, for a second straight season.

"I tell people, imagine if everyone had a Mercedes?" he said, drawing a comparison between the two forms of motor sports. "That would be a hell of a race.

"Instead of two guys racing, you would have 20 guys racing. And that's what you get in IndyCar."

Montoya said he was looking for no favors returning to IndyCar, just a shot at winning. And with Penske's reputation for giving his drivers something close to exactly similar cars and never using "team orders" to force one of his drivers to yield to another, Montoya says he figured he found a good home.

"What I expect is that we've got a good shot at it, and that's all I ask for, between me and you," he said. "Give me an opportunity and see what I can do with that opportunity.

"I know if I have a shot at it, I can be pretty good."

He admits to being fairly obsessive, and says his wife, Connie, sometimes suggests he should savor the success.

"My wife says to me, you should enjoy it, at least for one day," he said.

"Am I satisfied that I won? Yes, but as soon as it's over, it's what have we done right? What have we done wrong? What can we do to make it better?"

Seeking to preserve his lead in the championship, Montoya qualified third for the first IndyCar race on Belle Isle, behind Power and Helio Castroneves.

Montoya is the only member of the team not to have won on Belle Isle.

"I think we're good," he said. "We had a decent practice, just really couldn't put a good lap together because so many red flags and stuff.

"In qualifying we made a couple of changes. We made it a little better. But it wasn't as good as we wanted it.

"Good thing we've got a practice tomorrow."