After leading 116 of 160 laps in a dramatic and familiar display of domination in last year's Brickyard 400, his all-but-certain win was snatched by a penalty for excessive pit lane speed. This year Juan Pablo Montoya hopes for a better result. "Our cars are fast and the test session went well there earlier this year," reports the driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, who says his plan is to "get in the car, drive and see what happens."
What has been happening so far this season has been disappointing. "At this point, the chances of making the Chase are pretty slim," the Colombian admits, expressing puzzlement about why, considering he's had more top-five and top-10 finishes than last year, when he finished 8th in the points.
"We've been good every week," he analyzes. "It's crazy: we haven't been off the pace anywhere. Chip and I both knew this would take some time. We are running very good, but just haven't been getting the results - that is just one of those racing things that you can't always control."
Beyond his control have been mechanical issues and several wrecks. "It sucks, because we've been right behind the wreck and they block the whole track, and you're just a passenger. We had seven of those this year."
Maybe the NASCAR championship - one of Montoya's remaining motorsports goals - is out of reach this year, but that won't stop him from pursuing victories. If JPM can pull it off here, Chip Ganassi would be the first team owner to win the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis 500 in the same year.
Pressure is nothing new for the versatile driver, who shrugs off criticism and tackles challenges with a stoic matter-of-fact approach. "I am not the type that worries about impressing people. I'm here to get the job done. I want to win every week and I get in the car to do the best job I can and try to drive the wheels off the race car."
Ten years ago in his only IRL (Indy Racing League) start, he drove the wheels off an open-wheel car and won the Indianapolis 500 in dominant fashion, setting a rookie record by leading 167 out of 200 laps. His win - and his subsequent comment about his grandma being able to drive an IRL car - ignited a firestorm in the open-wheel war and initiated the great migration of CART (Champ Car) teams to the rival series. "When you win, it is big," he reflects, "but when you look back at it, it's a bigger deal. There's so much history wrapped up into that track and it's pretty cool to have won there."
Winning - especially as a rookie - is familiar territory. In 2007-2008, Montoya became the first driver in history to win in his first two starts in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He set records during his two years racing for Ganassi in CART, including a championship in his rookie year (1999). Prior to his arrival in the U.S., he won the 1998 Formula 3000 championship and before that, Colombian local and national titles.
Widely acclaimed during his CART years for his extraordinary car control, JPM achieved initial success when he moved to Formula One. Driving for BMW Williams and McLaren Mercedes between 2001-2006, he accumulated seven wins, including his most memorable at the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix. "I grew up an open wheel guy, so to me Monaco was always a big deal. That win will always be one of the most memorable."
But in 2006, he shocked the racing community when he left to rejoin Ganassi, this time in NASCAR, the first Formula One driver to enter the ranks of stock cars. With his usual straightforward bluntness, the 2007 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year says, "No regrets. No unfinished business. I felt like it was time to move on to a new challenge, and when Chip and I talked about the opportunity with NASCAR, I was ready to make the change. As I've said in the past, from a racing perspective, NASCAR is the toughest series I have raced in. I think the racing is very competitive, very close and it's a combination of driver, technology and good equipment."
"In Formula One," he continues, "when you've got the best car, you've got the win. It's that simple. Here, every week you've got a shot at winning. It's hard because any given Sunday out on the track there are five to ten cars that can actually win the race. It comes down to pit stops and strategy and stuff like that. But the most important thing about the racing in NASCAR is that you are actually racing someone on every lap of every race."
The racing isn't the only thing he prefers about NASCAR; he likes the family-friendly culture. "The competitors and fans were great to me and my family when we first came," Montoya recalls. "It's a completely different world over here, with drivers helping out other drivers and giving advice, telling you which line works best out on the race track. You just don't get that in F1."
In F1 he got a lot of harsh criticism for things outside the cockpit and his outspoken comments, as well as his aggressive driving style.
"I don't know if I would consider myself outspoken," he hedges. "I am just honest. You ask me a question and I'll give you my honest opinion. I am who I am, and if people like it, good."
Despite some on-track incidents and the occasional barb, most seem to like him. "It is interesting here in NASCAR that you can have on-track incidents with other drivers, but for the most part, off the track everyone still seems to get along relatively well."Â
He's had to earn it - from competitors and fans, with some fans following him to NASCAR. "The fans are what drives this sport," he acknowledges. "Whether they are booing or cheering for me, at least I am getting some sort of reaction out of them."
One reaction is a big following on Twitter. "I think it's a cool way to let people know more about me and see the funs things I get to do." Fun things like flying RC planes and helicopters; learning to windsurf along the Miami shore near his home; and hosting golf tournaments in his hometown of Bogota to support Formula Smiles, the foundation he and his wife started to improve the quality of life for Colombian children in vulnerable situations. "Connie and I wanted to find a way to give back to Colombia and help the children. We try to help raise money and bring awareness to the challenges that face children in Colombia."Since 2004, they have raised over $1.5 million to help children in their native Colombia.
Family is important in his life, influencing everything he does. The recent recipient of a Fatherhood Award from the National Fatherhood Initiative for balancing his busy career with family life, JPM has three children, the youngest, Manuela, born just days before the race "Connie and I knew from day one that we wanted to have kids. They are my everyday life. We wake up early and take them to school and then my wife picks them up, and we spend time with them in the afternoon. It's a lot of fun. We do a lot of things together."
"I'm just a normal guy that gets to race cars for a living," he says with candid humility. "When I'm not driving a race car, I'm spending as much time as possible with my family or enjoying one of my hobbies. There is no magic to it."
Return to Indy
There is magic to his driving. As the only driver to compete at Indianapolis in NASCAR, F1 and IndyCar, JPM says his approach to every race is the same. Intensely competitive and focused, he says, "I try to treat every race weekend the same, regardless of where it is. Our strategy is the same and we go into every weekend with the same attitude. We want to win races whether it's at Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Martinsville Speedway - the goal remains the same. We run really hard, we run really smart and that's all you can do. Hopefully at the end of it all you're winning races and competing for championships."
Allstate 400 at the Brickyard
Where:Â Indianapolis Motor Speedway
When:Â Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 1:00 p.m.
Public gates open at 7:00 a.m.