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Return to IndyCar racing has Montoya feeling young, as if starting over

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

Juan Pablo Montoya feels like he is starting all over.

The 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion and former Formula One driver has traded in his stock car for another chance at open-wheel racing. He's joined a new but formidable team, and he's spent most of the offseason getting acclimated to his new digs.

All he has to do now is prove he can still win in these cars - and the 38-year-old Colombian can't wait.

Open-wheel drivers in NASCAR

Change of pace

Some make shift from open-wheel to stock cars look easy.

''I do feel like a rookie. It's funny, people don't realize that,'' Montoya said this week after IndyCar drivers were given their annual physicals in Indianapolis. ''I know a lot of the drivers were complaining about how much testing I got from IndyCar, but it's so different. It's hard to know how well up to speed I am, because I've been running by myself.''

Montoya's move has brought an infusion of excitement to a series that needs a boost.

Dario Franchitti, a four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was forced to retire after he was injured in a frightening October crash. And for most of the last decade, IndyCar has seen some its top drivers leave for NASCAR or F1.

Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Sam Hornish Jr. and Robby Gordon all went from open-wheel racing to the higher-paying stock cars. Stewart is a three-time Cup champion and Patrick is the first woman to win the pole at Daytona. Some have had moderate success, like Gordon, a three-time winner in the Cup series. And others, such as Hornish, the 2006 Indy winner, have struggled.

Montoya was one of the world's most promising open-wheel racers in 2006 when he left F1 to join Chap Ganassi's NASCAR team. Twice he wound up a race winner and in 2009 he qualified for the season-ending Chase.

But when Ganassi decided not to bring Montoya back this season, the versatile driver followed his heart and signed on with Ganassi's biggest rival, Roger Penske.

''With his knowledge and also his experience, it's going to be another weapon out there for Team Penske,'' new teammate and three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves said. ''With every series he's been in, he's been able to win races, so he certainly is going to help us develop and be even more competitive.''

Montoya acknowledges it will take time.

He's spent a lot of time on the track and in the team shop, reacquainting himself with the higher racing speeds and the differences among IndyCar's three racing circuits.- ovals, road and street courses.

Still, longtime IndyCar observers think this it will be a perfect match.

''What's really unique about Juan Pablo Montoya, I feel pretty comfortable in saying, he may be the most versatile driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that this track has ever seen,'' Indy speedway President Doug Boles said. ''He's run F1, he's run IndyCar, he's run Cup cars, he's run sports cars and he's ridden on the back of a MotoGP two-seater. He's run at speed in every form of racing we have here.''

But in all those combined trips to Indy, Montoya has earned just that one trip to Victory Lane. He led 167 of 200 laps in his only 500 start, then jumped to F1 and never had a chance to reclaim the title.

He'll get two chances to do that this May.

Montoya is expected to start in the inaugural Indianapolis Grand Prix on May 10, and hopes to be one of 33 cars starting the May 25th 500 on the traditional 2.5-mile oval.

For Montoya, it's more than a dream. It's an opportunity to feel young again.

''The Brickyard (400) is a big deal, but it's not the Indy 500,'' he said. ''I never thought I'd be back here to try to get another win. I'm excited and to race here for Team Penske is a hell of a chance (to win).''

Tagged: Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr.

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