Montoya a dark horse to watch

INDIANAPOLIS -- Juan Pablo Montoya wants you to think he doesn't care.

He practically scoffs at his own achievements, which include winning the 1999 CART-sanctioned Indy car championship as a rookie when CART still mattered, scoring a dominant victory in his first attempt at the IRL Indianapolis 500 a year later, and winning seven Formula One races for two of the sport's most legendary teams.

The 38-year-old Colombian was also a winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but in the eyes of many, with an asterisk. That's because both of Montoya's Cup wins came on road courses and were written off as the product of being a road-racing specialist.

Montoya wants you to believe that he thinks it's no big deal that he never won a Cup Series oval race. But it is, and nowhere does that desire to right a wrong burn more brightly than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Nowhere on the NASCAR schedule did Montoya come closer to an oval victory than at IMS. Of course the one that got away was the 2009 race, where JPM appeared to have a dominant car before being clocked at 60.06 mph in the pits in a zone where 60.00 was the maximum allowable. An 11th-place finish was an unrepresentative result for a car that led 116 of 160 laps.

Payback would surely come a year later, and Montoya duly took pole position for the 2010 Brickyard 400. This time he led 86 laps before bad luck on the timing of a caution dropped him to midpack, and he crashed trying to come back through the field.

Now that he's returned to open-wheel racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Team Penske, Montoya's worldwide legion of fans probably figured he would never get another shot at stock car redemption at the Brickyard. But though he would probably never admit it, one of the reasons Roger Penske hired Montoya was the driver's strong record in the Brickyard 400 -- a race at Penske's beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he has never won.

It says right here that filling that gap in Mr. Penske's resume is probably worth a lifetime contract to a driver.

"Yeah, once or twice I probably 'coulda, shoulda and woulda' [won the Brickyard], and the [Indianapolis] 500 this year, as well," Montoya said. "But coulda, woulda and should've doesn't count.

"At least I had a chance, and I still think I've got a good chance this year," he added. "It's really hard to believe, that Roger has never won the Brickyard. It's one of those places where I feel like I got robbed a few times, so to be able to come here and be able to close that deal will be really, really nice."

Montoya's addition to the Brickyard field in the No. 12 Penske Truck Leasing Ford was late and somewhat expected. Penske sported him a warm-up race (the June 16 Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway), but that didn't go as well as Montoya hoped.

He said he got up to pace quickly in a 2014-spec Cup car during a short test at Nashville Superspeedway, but his race weekend at Michigan was an eye-opener.

"Michigan was hard because I ran six laps of practice before qualifying, so at least today we got a lot of running done," Montoya said Friday before clocking the sixth-fastest time in the final practice session Saturday for this year's Brickyard.

"We didn't try qualifying trim today, but our race pace, looking to compare with Brad [Keselowski, third-fastest in the Friday session in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford], looks really, really close, so it seems like we're pretty competitive," he continued. "I wasn't that happy with the car to be honest.

"It's hard because what Brad and Joey [Logano, P8 Friday in the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford] drive every week and what they look for in the car is a little bit different than what I want out of the car, so we've got to try and do a lot in one practice."

Montoya admitted that rule changes affecting the 2014 car and the new knockout qualifying format contributed to his qualifying 28th and finishing 18th at Michigan.

"I think at Michigan, what we wanted to do is understand the cars a little, understand the team and everything," he said of his maiden stock car run with the Penske organization. "I think we missed the car a little bit setup-wise, and one of the key things is getting the car closer. We felt we were pretty close in the middle of practice, and we kind of got lost there at the end today, so I think if we can get the car close we'll be pretty good.

"It seems like the race pace is pretty good, and I think I've been pretty good here," he added. "I know what I want out of the car, so that makes it a lot easier. We know what we need to work on to be a little better. We'll see once we put it in qualifying trim what it does."

The consensus after Michigan was that while Montoya was at a disadvantage because not only had he been out of stock car racing for six months after running for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates from 2007-'13, the Sprint Cup Series cars had changed considerably between 2013 and '14.

Six-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson came to Montoya's defense Friday.

"I think it's a tough task," Johnson said. "I think we all know and understand how talented he is in a race car, and if you look at the time it took to get back up to speed [in IndyCar], it took half a season or something to get going. So it will take him time here. It's just so tough to be the guy and to find that last half a tenth it takes to succeed when you're out of the seat and not in the seat."

Regardless of how he finishes Sunday in the Brickyard 400, it has been a successful return to Indy cars for Montoya. He won the July 6 Pocono Indy 500 and ranks fifth in the IndyCar Series standings.

"You just need things to go your way, and it's nice to close the deal," he said. "But personally, I just feel like we keep doing a better job every week."