INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — His career at a crossroads, his confidence shot, Juan Pablo Montoya received a lifeline from The Captain.
Roger Penske called the driver in late 2013, when Montoya found himself without a job after seven frustrating seasons in NASCAR that had turned one of the baddest drivers on the planet into a struggling also-ran.
The catch? Penske’s offer was a return to Indy cars, which Montoya had left behind years ago. The Colombian jumped at the opportunity and cashed in on it Sunday with his second Indianapolis 500 victory.
The first one was 15 years ago and a stepping stone to Formula One.
The second one came for a 39-year-old man who proved JPM is back.
In a moment of sincerity following his win, flanked by Team Penske President Tim Cindric, Montoya briefly suggested how much this one meant to him.
“I’m glad I am proving them right, that they made the right choice,” he said, pausing and lowering his eyes. “I’m loving racing right now.”
Oh, that was evident for two weeks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Montoya confidently boasted to his three teammates that he’d win the race.
On Sunday, he twice drove from the back of the field and fearlessly charged into the final few laps as the leader in a race where few wanted to be out front with the checkered flag looming, and held off teammate Will Power.
That 2000 victory was easy, he’s always said so, and when a driver leads 167 of the 200 laps, it clearly was a relaxed Sunday drive.
Win No. 2 was a battle from the very beginning. Montoya started 15th but an accident on the first lap brought out the caution and Montoya was hit from behind by Simona de Silvestro under yellow. He had to pit to repair the damage and restarted second-to-last in the field.
After working his way back through the field, he was penalized for running over his air hose during a pit stop — and again was sent deep into the pack.
“Montoya coming from all the way in the back — I’ll tell you, you give that guy the bit and put it in his mouth ... he doesn’t give up,” Penske said.
His victory gave Penske his 16th Indianapolis 500 win, and first since Helio Castroneves in 2009. Penske also joined Chip Ganassi as the only owners to win the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year. Ganassi did it in 2010; Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 for Penske in February.
The 15 years between Indy 500 victories are a record for a driver, surpassing A.J. Foyt, who needed 10 years between his third and fourth wins. That first win for Montoya? It came when he drove for Ganassi.
This victory was almost certainly going to go to a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing driver. With a combined nine cars in the field, the two owners showed over the last two weeks that their organizations are head-and-shoulders above the competition and Indianapolis is their own personal playground.
Penske and Ganassi drivers led the majority of the laps on Sunday — 193 of the 200 — and turned the final restart with 15 laps to go into a three-car thriller between Penske teammates Montoya and Power, and Ganassi driver Scott Dixon.
Power finished second and Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball was third, ahead of teammate Dixon. The two team owners embraced on pit road as Montoya headed to grab his bottle of milk. Later, as Montoya began the traditional victory lap around the 2.5-mile track in a convertible, Ganassi stopped the car to give Montoya a hug, smile and thumbs up.
“We’re still good friends. He made a business decision and that’s what it was,” Montoya said of his former boss. “He brought his A-game, and we did as well.”
It was thought that the leader on the final lap would be a sitting duck, but Montoya didn’t care as he charged past Power with three laps remaining and stayed out front when it counted.
“Montoya got that last run and maybe I was a bit nice to him into (turn) 1 and lifted,” said Power. “That was some serious racing there, a lot of fun.”
Montoya, sometimes a surly and scowling veteran, grinned ear-to-ear Sunday as he reveled in his return to relevance. He’s the IndyCar Series points leader and now has two wins this season.
“This is what racing in IndyCar is all about — awesome racing all the way down to the wire,” said Montoya, who won just two Sprint Cup Series races in seven seasons driving for Ganassi in NASCAR.
Montoya led just nine total laps — far fewer than the race-high 84 by pole-sitter Dixon — but he only had to be out front for the one that mattered.
Chevrolet, which has dominated both the entire month at Indianapolis and this IndyCar season, took the top four spots and eight of 10. Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti finished fifth and sixth to represent Honda, which grossly underperformed the entire month in the speedway debut of the new aerokits.
The body work designs by the two manufacturers have been under scrutiny since three cars — all Chevys — went airborne during practice last week. The driver James Hinchcliffe suffered a life-threatening leg injury in an unrelated crash and he has been hospitalized since Monday.
With a genuine concern about cars taking flight lingering over the race, IndyCar wasn’t sure that a quick fix a week ago had truly solved the problem.
But, the race had no issues aside from typical racing accidents, including one that gave Sebastian Saavedra a contusion to his foot. There were some pit road incidents involving crew members, and one of Dale Coyne Racing’s crew members went to a local hospital with an ankle injury after he was struck by James Davison during pit stops.
Castroneves, one of the drivers to go airborne last week, said the final 15 laps of racing was too dangerous.
“I’d rather go airborne than get to the last 15 laps of this race just to see the level of aggressiveness,” he said. “I am not happy with these guys. I don’t care if they crash each other they can go ahead and hurt themselves, but when they put me into that scenario that is when I get upset.”