Juan Pablo Montoya back on track

LONG POND, Pa. -- For everybody out there who was surprised that Juan Pablo Montoya returned to the winner's circle of an Indy car race at age 38, there was somebody else who thought:

What took so long?

Montoya wrote another chapter in the book of his unpredictable racing career by taking a well-earned victory in Sunday's Pocono INDYCAR 500. It was Montoya's first win in an Indy car since he triumphed at Gateway International Raceway in September 2000, and it also happened to be the fastest 500-mile race in history, with an average speed of 202.402 mph.

To the man himself, the historic triumph was already yesterday's news.

"I'll be honest with you, I never race for the history of it," Montoya told reporters at Pocono Raceway after the race. "I've never been a history buff, you know what I mean? If you look at everything I've accomplished so far in racing, 20 years from now they're going to go, 'Oh, my God, this guy did this!' But right now I don't really care.

"Now I'm thinking about what are we going to do for Iowa [the July 11 Iowa Corn 250 at Iowa Speedway]. Tomorrow we'll have fun with the team and plan how we're going to run the weekend and what we did right this weekend and what we did wrong. I think we've been doing a really good job of taking advantage of every situation and learning from it."

There's no question that the 38-year-old Montoya is a different man than the cocky 23-year-old who swept into the CART-sanctioned Indy car series in 1999 and promptly won seven races and the championship as a rookie. He ruffled some star feathers along the way -- most notably those of Michael Andretti, after a practice crash on the Motegi, Japan, oval.

Andretti, now a leading team owner in the Verizon IndyCar Series, came to appreciate Montoya's talents -- and even his attitude. Last summer, Andretti called Montoya "one of the best drivers I raced against" and was one of the men who set the ball rolling for Montoya's Indy car comeback after he'd spent 13 years in Formula One and NASCAR.

Montoya instead signed with Team Penske, a move that some likened to his change from the Williams to the McLaren team in F1 between the 2004 and '05 seasons. While JPM's uneasy tenure with McLaren lasted less than two years, the time in that corporate environment, along with his years in sponsor-friendly NASCAR, groomed him perfectly as Penske material.

Montoya's 2014 IndyCar comeback started slowly, but a strategy-aided fourth-place finish at Long Beach provided a confidence boost. His results continued to steadily improve, but those expecting a dominant victory in his third start like back in 1999 -- or winning the IRL-sanctioned Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2000 -- were left disappointed.

But the signs of a breakthrough started coming more and more frequently, with standout moments in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indy 500, and he was the fastest man on the track at Texas Motor Speedway on the way to the first podium of his return to open-wheel competition.

Another podium followed at Houston, and suddenly Montoya was up to fifth place in the point standings. The double-points victory at Pocono moved him up to fourth, just 55 points behind his championship-leading teammates, Will Power and Helio Castroneves.

The idea of Montoya contending for the IndyCar championship -- hoped for, but thought of as unlikely three months ago at St. Petersburg -- is now a reality.

"I was, I don't know, nearly 200 points out or something, and now I'm within 50," he said. "I'm still a ways away, but hey, I think people know that I'm coming, and it's good. It's definitely a plus."

He admits that it's a different way of going about running for a championship than back in 1999, when he won seven races to title rival Dario Franchitti's three. But Franchitti's superior finishing record allowed the Scotsman to take the battle down to the wire, and they actually tied on points with Montoya's additional wins scoring him the crown on a tiebreaker.

Montoya took some heat for not winning more NASCAR races, but he believes the seven years he spent racing stock cars worked to his benefit.

"NASCAR really showed me to look at the bigger picture that you never did," he said. "I think 90 percent of the open-wheel guys never look at the bigger picture, and I probably lost formula championships and everything by not looking at the bigger picture. It's a shame you can't turn back to be 20 again with this experience, but it's what it is."

To illustrate his point, Montoya brought up his dice with rookie Jack Hawksworth in the second Houston race. Juan was extremely unhappy with the 23-year-old Englishman in the immediate aftermath of the race, but with a week of reflection, he saw things from a different perspective.

"I've got to keep in mind that I got to here [fourth place in the standings] because I've been really smart about it, and it's got to be that way," he said. "With Hawksworth in Houston, I could have been stupid or braver or whatever you want to call it and ended up in tires with him and proved a point. But what's the point? The point is that would have gave away 20 or 30 points, and then you get to the end of the year, and you go, 'Oh, I shouldn't be fighting with that dude!'"

Power dominated the early part of the season, but is producing the kind of erratic performances lately that lost him championship opportunities in 2010, '11 and '12. Castroneves, meanwhile, is having another consistent campaign, but the Brazilian has also never won an Indy car title and has been prone to fade down the stretch.

That makes Montoya, looming just 55 points back with seven races to go and performing better with every passing week, look pretty good.

"I think now I'm really settled on the IndyCar," he said. "Honestly, I believed from how well I performed back in the day and how well I always ran in Formula One and like when I ran the Daytona Prototype and anything with grip, I could perform.

"I knew it was going to take a little bit of time, but having the opportunity to run for Roger, it's unbelievable. I've worked really hard physically and mentally to get here, and I feel in a really good place right now.

"I'm really happy."