Juan Pablo Montoya is back in the IndyCar Series, and it should feel like home.
But not yet.
Not until he remembers everything he used to know about open-wheel racing before he left for the stock cars of NASCAR.
“It was hard at the beginning, and it’s still hard,” he said Wednesday at Texas Motor Speedway, where he and 18 other drivers began two days of testing in preparation for the Firestone 600 in June. “The places where I’ve been in the Cup car are harder.”
There are parts of Montoya’s mind that make him think he’s still in the 3,200-pound stock car, not the 1,500-pound rocket he now drives for Team Penske.
“It’s tough for me,” he said. “The race line is completely different. In the Cup car here, it is about Turn 1 and 2, riding on the paint — the closer you are to the paint, especially 1 and 2 past the center, the better you are on the corner. I don’t want to try that in this car, because if you get it wrong, it’s going to hurt.”
But Montoya’s mind also recognizes that, in a sense, he is home. He won 10 times in CART from 1999 to 2000, then raced six years in Formula One and won seven times. But in eight years in NASCAR after that, he won only two Sprint Cup races and one Nationwide race.
“Oh, no. I thought it was great,” Montoya said, asked if he regrets the time in NASCAR. “We made the Chase. We won some races. And when the car was competitive, we were really good. But the inconsistency really hurt us. There were a lot of changes. I think they realized they had to be more consistent. Like this year, you see that they are running better, so that’s good for them.”
For his first year in the IndyCar Series, Montoya landed on his feet. He is in one of the series’ most respected shops, Team Penske, joining Helio Castroneves and Will Power, who were second and fourth in the standings last year.
“They told me he was coming on board. I thought it was pretty cool, a guy I looked up to in Formula One,” Power said. “I say he’s an animal behind the wheel. You look at his data and overlays, he definitely gets after it.”
Montoya smiled at the nickname.
He wants to think of himself that way again in open-wheel cars. They are home to him. But he acknowledges it could take a while.
“I know the better results we get, the better the season is going to be,” he said. “I know there are going to be weekends when I’m going to be better and weekends when I show up and I’m going to suck. I’m OK with that. Just got to understand how to make things better.”
How to make it more like home.
“It hurts a little bit to come this close. Running second’s great, but nobody’s really going to remember that.”
— Dale Earnhardt Jr., after his third runner-up of the season, Saturday at Darlington
“Now I know some of the secrets of how I got beat for so many years.”
— Tony Kanaan, on joining Team Penske