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Montoya heats up for Penske as IndyCar hits Pocono

Juan Pablo Montoya

IndyCar driver Juan Pablo Montoya, of Colombia, listens to a reporter's question during an interview after a practice session for Sunday's Pocono IndyCar 500 auto race, Saturday, July 5, 2014, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

By
From page B3 | July 06, 2014 |

LONG POND, Pa. — Juan Pablo Montoya has been sprayed with champagne, doused with milk, and feted with confetti.

But he never expected to find himself buried under a potato chip shower courtesy of teammate Helio Castroneves.

Unable to contain his patriotic fervor after his native Brazil scored a World Cup goal, Castroneves sprung from his seat and dumped a bowl of chips all over Montoya. Montoya seemed slightly irked at the mess and dusted the crumbs off the Colombian jersey he wore at IndyCar’s soccer watch party.

“Helio’s the kind of guy that likes the drama,” Montoya said, smiling.

Montoya had no use for another chip — after all, there’s a reason he signed with Roger Penske — but the secret snack attack was just a minor annoyance in a major successful stretch for the former Indianapolis 500 champion in his open wheel return.

In the true IndyCar crunch time, Montoya’s adjustment to the car after an uneven seven-year stint in NASCAR may be over. After only two top 10s in his first seven starts, Montoya reeled off a third, second and seventh in his past three.

And because of two races a year on the tri-oval track for NASCAR, no driver will know the Pocono Raceway course as well as he does in Sunday’s race.

Once a brash and fearless driver, Montoya is starting to feel like his old self — and that could spell bad news for the rest of the field down the stretch.

“I’m getting more cocky,” Montoya said.

He flashed some serious speed Saturday at Pocono when he turned a track-record lap of 223.920 mph and posted a two-lap average of 223.871 to win his first pole of the season.

Montoya said he now has a better understanding of how to make the car do what he wants. With each day, his speed improves, his confidence swells and he believes he’s now on the same pace as Team Penske teammates Will Power and Castroneves.

“It’s fun because I feel it starting to click,” Montoya said. “The more it starts to click, the more confident you get in the car, the more you push it.”

Montoya is making his championship push at the right time with eight races left in the season, including some that boast double points.

Montoya has some familiar faces to catch in his pursuit of a championship: Power and Castroneves are 1-2 in the standings. Montoya is fifth and rising fast, a Pocono win would net him 100 points in the 500-miler and would stamp him a serious player in the championship hunt.

All three drivers insisted it’s not awkward chasing each other for the championship.

“At the end of the day, we accomplish our goal, which is give the championship to Roger,” Castroneves said.

That’s one reason Montoya signed with Penske. He wanted a competitive ride again after lackluster results driving for Chip Ganassi in NASCAR. He knew his open wheel return would have a learning curve: Montoya last ran in CART in 2000, then left Formula One midway through the 2006 season for NASCAR.

Even if he can’t run down Power and Castroneves, Montoya proved of late he’s again a credible threat to win.

“I’d look at it in the beginning and I was like 12th or 14th in points and I was like, ‘I don’t really want to look at this. This is kind of embarrassing,’” he said. “I think where experience pays off is, you don’t put yourself in bad positions and you finish more races.”

He wanted the hot streak to keep rolling at Pocono.

Because of the differences in stock cars vs. Indy cars, Montoya said there would be little advantage to his familiarity with the 2 1/2-mile track. He should hope for different results, too. Montoya had only one top-five finish in 14 career NASCAR races at Pocono.

“I never doubted Juan Pablo,” Castroneves said.

Montoya doubted himself just a bit after a sluggish start.

“You’re not comfortable, you’re not confident,” he said. “Now, I can outbrake anybody. I can get there and I know I can throw the car in and I’m still going to stop. That confidence level has gone up a long way. I’m starting to pick it back up. It wasn’t going to happen overnight. You’ve got to go racing to really understand.”

Carlos Huertas, Montoya and Carlos Munoz were 1-2-3 last weekend at the Grand Prix of Houston for the first all-Colombian podium in IndyCar history. While national pride had Montoya rooting for Columbia in Friday’s World Cup loss, he just shrugged when it was over.

“I’m not a soccer fan,” he said.

Montoya would rather put his focus on trying to blister the field, rather than worry about the one on his right hand. Montoya held out his hand to show the circular mark that remained from the bubble that formed about 15 laps into the second race at Houston. He tweeted a picture of the injury Sunday with the caption, “Ouchhh!!!”

It was a small price to pay for the fun he’s having again in IndyCar.

And he certainly doesn’t miss NASCAR, even as the series zips on this weekend on at Daytona.

“I watched Nationwide,” Montoya said. “I feel asleep.”

 

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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