Indianapolis • Juan Pablo Montoya stormed onto the national scene in 1999 as a brash and fearless rookie who didn’t hesitate to go wheel-to-wheel with the biggest names.
The 23-year-old backed down from no one, didn’t hesitate to drive his car in the most precarious positions and charged hard in his pursuit of winning races. He collected seven wins and won the CART Series championship, then picked up three more series victories the next year.
But there was only one goal in 2000, the year Chip Ganassi Racing returned to the Indianapolis 500 after a four-year absence. Ganassi pushed hard for an Indy 500 win, and Montoya delivered in a monstrous way: The Colombian led 167 of the 200 laps as he routed the field and beat runner-up Buddy Lazier by more than seven seconds. Then he was gone, off to Formula One for 51/2 years and then seven full seasons in NASCAR. Montoya never looked back, never once considered another run at the Indianapolis 500.
Now 38, Montoya is back in IndyCar, driving for storied Team Penske, and after four races and two weeks of practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he’s comfortable again in the race car.
“I’m starting to get cockier and cockier and cockier in the car,” Montoya told The Associated Press. “Your confidence starts to grow. To be honest, I think I have a really good shot at winning it. I really do. With my oval experience in NASCAR and knowing this place really well, and being with Team Penske, chances of winning don’t come much better than that.”
That’s the attitude fans expected when Montoya made his return.
But it wasn’t just like riding a bike for Montoya, who needed months of testing. It was make-or-break time at the season-opener, where many fans thought Montoya would once again make the series look like his own personal playground.
He was not one of them.
“In the first race, I couldn’t outbrake anybody,” he said. “In NASCAR, you never pass anybody into the corner, you pass everybody out of the corner. Here, you don’t pass anybody out of the corner. Everything is in the braking, and I haven’t outbraked anybody in seven years. So I had to relearn.”