Juan Pablo Montoya recaps eventful race at Indianapolis

Juan Pablo Montoya celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Rob Baker/AP

INDIANAPOLIS —  Juan Pablo Montoya’s charge to victory in the 99th Indianapolis 500 history was one of the greatest drives of his career and it placed him in an elite state among drivers in the history of this race.

By winning his second Indy 500 in just his third start, the only other competitor with a better start to his Indianapolis 500 career is teammate Helio Castroneves, who won the 500-mile race in his first two starts in 2001 and 2002. But Montoya’s two victories are separated by 15 years — the longest span between wins of any driver in Indianapolis 500 history.

Montoya won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie but left the CART Series at the end of that season to go to Formula One. He would remain in the F1 Series through 2006 before making the jump to NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2007. He stayed in NASCAR through the 2013 season when team owner Chip Ganassi released him.

Montoya missed the style of racing and the chance to win that he had in IndyCar racing and made the surprising move to Team Penske at the end of 2013. He finished fifth in his Indy 500 return in 2014 and entered Sunday’s race confident he could return to Victory Lane.

He justified that confidence with a spectacular finish that included a battle with two of the best drivers in the series — teammate Will Power and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon – over the final 15 laps of the race, thrilling the crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"The win in 2000 was good because our car was really quick," Montoya said. "We executed well in everything. But this one, when you’re fighting with your teammate (Will Power), it’s hard. Knowing that they’re right there, it’s a little bit what happened in St. Pete. I mean, you want to run as hard as you can, but you know the guy running third is a Ganassi car, and you’re not going to give that win away. You can’t give that win away. I know what it means to Roger Penske and everybody at Team Penske to get this win.

"Earlier I thanked him for giving me the opportunity and believing in me that I could get the job done. I’m happy I can prove them right. "

When Montoya won in 2000 he made it look easy, leading an incredible 167 laps to become the first rookie driver to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966. But this was a far different tale as it was an extremely competitive and hard-fought battle before Montoya claimed victory in the 99th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

Juan Pablo Montoya takes home Indianapolis 500

“That was an easy race (in 2000) but this was a lot of work today,” said Montoya. "With Simona de Silvestro in back of me at the start of the race, that’s what happens when you qualify bad. You find yourself with the wrong crowd.”

Starting 15th on the grid, it didn’t take long for the Team Penske driver to discover that lesson when di Silvestro ran into the back of Montoya’s Chevrolet as the field was getting ready for a restart on Lap 7. The contact damaged a rear wheel flap — part of the Chevrolet aero kit behind the rear wheel. Team Penske replaced the rear wing assembly during a pit stop and that dropped Montoya to last place — 30th of the cars that were still in the race from the field of 33.

"Simona didn’t do it on purpose,” Montoya said. “She wants to prove she’s that good. She has a lot of speed. But when you’re racing for a job, it’s a lot harder. You know what I mean? We all race for jobs because we got to perform. But you got to understand the big picture, how do you get the win?

“I think I’ve got a lot of experience. NASCAR helped me understand 500-mile races, how they need to run and everything.”

Montoya rapidly made up the lost ground in the race and was the leader by Lap 38. But when he made a pit stop on Lap 41 for four tires and fuel he slide through his pit box and needed to be pulled back, losing even more time.

Once again, he would fight his way back into the contention in a race that was shaping up as a battle between pole sitter Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Will Power and Montoya.

“We kept adding downforce and adjusting the car,” Montoya said. “It was fun because after the caution, when I was running like eighth, I could barely keep up with them. I’m like, ‘We don’t have anything.’ As we kept adjusting the car, ‘Oh, that’s a little better, that’s a little better.’ That’s what you got to do, stay on top of the track. What really matters are the last 15 laps.”

And those last 15 laps were some of the best racing the crowd could hope for. It was a battle between Dixon, Power and Montoya and the reward would be an Indianapolis 500 victory.

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Power was in the lead on Lap 186 on a restart before Dixon passed Montoya for second and Power for the lead in Turn 3 on Lap 187. Power and Dixon would swap leads over the next four laps before Montoya was able to get in front of Dixon for second place after Dixon had a radiator inlet get plugged with debris and his engine started to run hot.

Dixon was still second behind Power before Montoya passed the Indy 500 pole sitter for second place in Turn 1 on Lap 196. One lap later, Montoya passed teammate Power for the lead on Lap 197. Power made several attempt to build up some momentum in a last-chance effort to make the race-winning pass but it was Montoya was able to arrive at the checkered flag first.

It extended team owner Roger Penske’s Indianapolis 500 record to 16 victories.

“Montoya coming all the way from the back, I’ll tell you, you give that guy the bit and put it in his mouth and he doesn’t give up,” Penske said. “It’s a great day for Team Penske. I’m just so thrilled for everybody that works for us in our company and all the people who support us. What a day.

“At the end of the day, they played fair. Good passing and we won the race.”

The 15-year span between Montoya’s Indianapolis 500 victories is the longest span between a pair of wins. The previous record was 10 years between A.J. Foyt’s third win in 1967 and his record-setting fourth Indy 500 win in 1977.

Montoya’s Chevrolet finished ahead of Power’s Chevy by 0.1046-seconds – the fourth-closest margin of victory in the Indy 500’s 99-race history.

“That was fun racing – probably the best racing,” Montoya admitted. “Between Will and Dixon, we have a lot of respect for each other. We understand the risk and we understand when they got you. So it makes it fun.”

(From left) Juan Pablo Montoya makes the final pass for the lead on teammate Will Power as Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon battle for 3rd.

The fight to the finish over the final three laps involving three of the very best drivers in the sport made this race another showstopper at the Indianapolis 500.

“It was some race when you think about how we started the month, all the issues, the negative things that came out about the race cars, what have you,” Penske said. “I’ve never been here where I saw 15 laps at the end there where it could have been anybody’s race. They raced clean; they passed, so there’s something working.

“Just to see Juan, during the race, coming up, I knew he had a good car. If you know him, he’s a fighter. I thought Will had it there. But Ganassi, the 9 (Dixon), seemed to be so easy, it could go by us from time to time. I was waiting for him to stripe us there at the end. He didn’t have it at the end because our guys were there together, that helped us. We had two against one. That helped us with the 9.

“I think it was our day. Last year we missed it by half a car length. That’s a credit to the guys. The engines ran well, the aero kits. It was a safe race. The world saw a race that we wanted to see come out of Indianapolis – ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’”

“Hats off to Montoya and Will,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. “Those two guys battled it out. They battled it safe. Obviously I stand in one pit, but as long as one of you guys brings it back, I’m good with it.

“I feel bad for Will, but somebody’s got to be second. This guy did it all.”

The last 15 laps were thrilling to all who witnessed it, especially for the drivers in the cockpit that were doing the battling.

“It was huge,” Montoya said. “On the restart, Dixon passed us, ‘Oh, my God, where did that come from? He has an extra wing, how the hell?’ It was surprising because he passed us pretty easy. At that point with eight laps to go, you have no idea I had a shot at the winning. We looked so equal. My car started coming in better, coming in better, got better and better and better at the end.

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“It was good. I got a hell of a run. I think Will had a bit of understeer in the car and I think that really played into our hands because he couldn’t get close to me out of turn two. We got to turn two; he was like right on me. ‘Oh, my God, please.’ I looked in the mirror, ‘where are you? I’ll follow you, follow you, take over your ass.’

“I want to thank Tim and Roger, they give me this opportunity a little over a year ago to come and join them. I’m glad I’m proving them right, that they made the right choice. I’m loving racing right now, so it’s great.”

For Penske, he joins Chip Ganassi as the only team owners to win both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year. Ganassi did that in 2010 with Jamie McMurray winning the Daytona 500 and Dario Franchitti winning the Indy 500. In February this year, Joey Logano won the Daytona 500.

“Chip wouldn’t let me in the club,” Penske said with a laugh. “I finally got in. He sent me a note earlier, he said, ‘Welcome to the club.’ I said, ‘Thanks for the invite.’”

Montoya sent in the RSVP on that invite with his victory.

“When I got through three and four, I knew I had won the race,” Montoya admitted. “I got into turn three. I come out of turn two, Will pushed, I had to push, and the gap got bigger. Turn four, he wasn’t close enough and I radioed, ‘Ha, ha, ha, I got this!’

“I was screaming. I was so happy.

“I know Will is probably disappointed right now he finished second, but in a couple months he’s going to look back and say, Man, that was fun. That was a hell of a race.”

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