NASCAR might not have seen the last of Juan Pablo Montoya.
And even if it has, Montoya will be just fine where he is, back in the IndyCar Series.
“If I look back at everything I’ve done, the most fun and best racing I’ve done in my career, it’s been in IndyCar,” said Montoya, a former Formula One driver and Indianapolis 500 champion.
“This was the perfect time to do it. I felt like two years from now, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Timing-wise, it was ideal.”
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The IndyCar season doesn’t begin until March 30 in St. Petersburg, Fla., but Montoya was among nearly two dozen series drivers to participate in media day Tuesday at the Amway Center.
Coincidentally, the event was scheduled just an hour west of where NASCAR will crown its Daytona 500 champion Sunday.
Montoya won the 1999 title in the Championship Auto Racing Teams series and the 2000 Indy 500 with Chip Ganassi before moving to Formula One. After stints with two F1 teams, he debuted with Ganassi’s NASCAR team in 2007.
During his NASCAR career, Montoya qualified once for the Chase for the Sprint Cup (2009), but he managed just two victories in 253 starts, both on road courses. Ganassi announced late last season it would not renew the driver’s contract.
While Montoya has extensive open-wheel experience, he still has a required refresher course of sorts while adjusting to his new ride with Team Penske. He has participated in tests at Phoenix, Sebring, Fla., Sonoma, Calif., and Fontana, Calif.
“I feel like I’m not where I want to be yet with the car. I feel we have come a long way,” he said. “It’s weird. Sometimes we’re really good, sometimes we’re average.
“The first Sebring test was horrible. I feel like Sonoma was pretty good. I was really happy. It’s hard because the new tires are different than the ones I’ve been used to the last three years.”
Montoya has left open the possibility of showing up at one or more Cup races, perhaps even this season.
Last month, Montoya’s car owner, Roger Penske, mentioned the possibility of Montoya driving in this season’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The road-course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, N.Y., also have been mentioned.
“I think the Brickyard would be a good thing,” said Montoya, who led 116 of 160 laps in the 2009 NASCAR race there before a late pit-road speeding penalty knocked him out of contention. “I’ve been so close so many times, it would be a good way of closing that chapter with a good win there. I know Roger hasn’t won there. If we could get the opportunity to do it, I think it would be pretty cool.”
Most IndyCar drivers asked Tuesday said they didn’t think it would take long for Montoya to get back up to speed on the open-wheel side.
“Juan’s obviously worked on a lot of teams before and understands how the whole thing works. He’s brought a lot of experience to the team and come up with good ideas,” said teammate Will Power.
“He’s already helped to point us in a good direction, along with (teammate) Helio (Castroneves) as well. We all kind of work together. At the end of the day we all understand that we got to race each other on the track.”
ESPN NASCAR TV analyst Allen Bestwick, who will do play-by-play on five IndyCar telecasts this season, believes Montoya will need “some adjustment” to his new ride.
“The cars have changed a lot since he drove those cars last. But I don’t see any reason why he won’t succeed. He’s obviously very, very good at anything he’s driven,” Bestwick said.
“There’s a determination there. Will he win this year? I think he will, yeah.”
Will it be in IndyCar, NASCAR – or both?