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Montoya looking to close deal

INDIANAPOLIS -- Juan Pablo Montoya has always made running fast around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway look easy.

Legend has it he was flat out from the moment he left the pits in the spring of 2000 for his first test laps around the famous oval in an IRL-specification Indy car.

A few weeks later, as an insouciant 24-year-old, Montoya toyed with his competition, leading 167 of 200 laps on the way to winning the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt. That dominant performance was similar to the way he swept into the CART-sanctioned Indy car series in 1999, winning the championship as a rookie against much more experienced competition.

But since that first-year triumph in Indy's biggest race, Montoya hasn't found his way back to Victory Lane in what has turned out to be the most diverse driving career in the 100-year history of the Speedway. He has competed at IMS in Indy cars, Formula One, NASCAR and Grand-Am Rolex Series sports cars.

The IMS road course was not one of JPM's best tracks during his five-year F1 career, with a single top-5 finish. Conversely, he has been competitive on the oval since he made an unexpected switch to NASCAR. He has started on the front row for the Brickyard 400 three times and came close to winning in 2009 and '10.

That's why that initial open-wheel breakthrough at Indianapolis 13 years ago is far from the front of Montoya's mind these days.

He's not fixated on the disappointments of recent years, but he certainly hasn't forgotten.

In 2009, he led 116 of the 160 laps, including an event-record 58 consecutive, only to be penalized by NASCAR after being clocked 0.06 mph over the 60 mph pit lane speed limit. A year later, he crashed after dropping from first to seventh in the final round of pit stops, trying too hard after his rivals gained track position by taking just two tires compared to his four.

Seven years into his stock car career, with just two road-course victories on his résumé, Montoya knows just how hard it is to win on the Sprint Cup level. And those at Indy that got away still hurt.

"If any track owes us anything, this is it," Montoya said Wednesday night, relaxing between auction bids at a charity event at Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Indianapolis race shop. "And right now would be a good time for it to happen."

For sure, since it's a contract year for the 37-year-old Colombian. He has been loyal to Chip Ganassi, who was also his Indy car team owner in 1999 and 2000, for his entire NASCAR career, but disappointing results over the past couple of years threatened to put a slight strain into the relationship.

After major engineering changes, there has been a general trend of improvement for Ganassi's NASCAR program this year, for both Montoya and teammate Jamie McMurray. Montoya lost what looked like a sure win at Richmond thanks to an untimely late caution, and he's been a genuine front-runner on several occasions.

Although he's 23rd in the points and a long shot to make NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Montoya is much more encouraged than he was a year ago.

"We've had a couple of shots to win this year, and we'll have a couple more," he said. "I think we'll get it done. If we can get a win or two, the whole season can change around. It's a lot of little things."

The Ganassi driver was one of a handful who participated in a Goodyear tire test at Indianapolis a few weeks ago, and he hopes that works to his advantage.

"We tested at two tracks this year, and I finished second at one of those and fourth in the other, and we should have won that race [Richmond]," Montoya said. "The thing is, when you have a winning car and everything goes bad, you finish 10th or 12th. When you have a 10th-placed car and everything goes bad, you're 20th. That's the problem we've been having."

"I think in general we have a fifth- to 10th-place car," he added. "We're still missing that last little bit to make ourselves a winning team. But I think everything is in the right place right now."

Montoya is comfortable living in Miami and has no desire to do anything other than race in the Sprint Cup Series. He prefers the grind of 38 weekends in the car in NASCAR to the heavier PR responsibilities of F1.

Should he break through for his first NASCAR oval victory at the Speedway on Sunday, it would be symbolic on a number of levels. Montoya would be the first driver to win two major races at Indianapolis and the first foreign winner of the Brickyard 400.

Indianapolis was also the place where the very idea of stock car racing was sparked in Montoya's brain. It happened in 2003, on the road course, when he drove Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet stock car and Gordon turned a few laps in Montoya's Williams-BMW F1 car.

Montoya adapted to the venerable old oval in a stock car just as quickly as he did an IRL car, but he hasn't been able to finish the job on race day.

Now when he arrives at Indy, this road-course ringer is as heavily favored to win as he is at Watkins Glen or Sonoma.

He was far from happy after qualifying eighth for this year's Brickyard 400.

"We thought we had a good car, but we didn't make any changes and the sunlight makes a big difference here," he said. "The most important thing here is to qualify in the top five to give yourself a chance, and we didn't do that.

"I know we're going to have a good Target Chevy for the race, but I thought we had a chance [for pole] today. It kinda sucks."