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.
Pole streak: The run of different winners is over, but the run of different pole qualifiers is at eight, tying the record to start a season.
So far: NASCAR is touting an increase in four categories over last year at this time — average leaders, lead changes, passes and passes for the lead.
500 qualifying: The series added a “hardship” allowance for a competitor or team suffering a mishap on the Saturday before pole qualifying that provides a second chance to make the grid.
More practice: The Indianapolis 500 added an extra day of practice, putting the Monday after pole qualifying on the calendar.
Funny Car: Robert Hight became the season’s first two-time winner and kept his points lead, now at 35, over John Force.
Foreign winner: Jimmy Alund of Sweden won in Pro Stock, becoming only the fourth non-American to win in the Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series.
Live TV: The series announced live telecasts by ESPN for New England on June 22, Chicago on June 29 and Denver on July 20.
106.0 Driver rating for Jimmie Johnson this season, best in Sprint Cup.
515 Laps led by Kevin Harvick this season, most in Sprint Cup.
“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