Juan Pablo Montoya has a nickname among some of his driver friends.
You can probably guess it.
“Pablito,” said Tony Kanaan, breaking into a wide grin.
He nods his head when somebody asks him about his friend Montoya and his return to IndyCar racing.
“Pablito’s back, man.”
Yes, Pablito — a former Indy 500 and CART champion — is back in open-wheel racing, fast as ever, after seven years in NASCAR.
“It’s typical Juan,” Kanaan said two weeks ago during an appearance in Arlington. “The guy just wants to go fast. He doesn’t care about anybody else. Doesn’t care about anything. Whatever you say, he has his own agenda. So I think it’s a plus for us. We need some different personalities in IndyCar, and he’s definitely one of them.”
Montoya stands seventh in the IndyCar series standings after last weekend at Detroit as the series comes to Fort Worth on Saturday night for the Firestone 600. It will be the first time Montoya has raced an open-wheel car at Texas Motor Speedway, although he competed there often in Sprint Cup.
And he’s betting on himself to be fast in an Indy car.
“We have done a lot of races there in the Cup car. I know my way around there really well,” he said. “I know where the bumps are. We should be good.”
Montoya recorded only two top-10s in 14 starts in a Sprint Cup car in Fort Worth. He won only twice in seven full-time seasons in Sprint Cup, joining the ranks of open-wheel racers who have never gotten a full a handle on the boxy stock cars of NASCAR.
But in the cockpit of the sleek Indy cars, Montoya is a handful.
“He made it look easy, every race he raced with us when he won with Chip,” Kanaan said, remembering Montoya’s victory in the 2000 Indy 500 for Chip Ganassi Racing. “He’s been there, man. He’s knocking on the door. Eventually, he’s going to be up there again.”
Montoya won a CART championship in 1999 as a rookie. He was ninth the following year before heading to NASCAR. He also won seven times in Formula One before joining CART.
He remembers the creativity of open-wheel racing.
“You need the draft to pass, but you don’t need somebody on your bumper,” he said, thinking back to Indianapolis. “You can make your own decisions. You can make your own destiny, which is different from NASCAR. In NASCAR, your destiny is controlled more from the person behind you rather than yourself. It’s whether, when you make a move, that they go with you or with somebody else.
“Here, it’s yourself. If you’ve got a good car, you make a move. You don’t need anybody’s help. If you’re there, you’re there.”
Montoya has two top 5s in seven starts this season, and already, he knows the open-wheel series is for him.
“A lot of people believe in me,” he said. “Some people hate me, some people love me. People say what they’re going to say. I think we’re in a pretty good position. The IndyCar people are really happy that I’m back. Every week is better. We’re more competitive every week.”
Pablito is making it look that way.