Despite Sunday’s Brickyard 400 being one of only two scheduled Sprint Cup starts this year for Juan Pablo Montoya, the former open-wheel ace turned NASCAR driver turned open-wheeler-again brings a bucket load of confidence into Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Sure, it will be only his second NASCAR start since joining the Verizon IndyCar Series this season in a full-time ride with owner Roger Penske’s team.
Then again, Montoya has logged more laps around the historic 2.5-mile Indiana oval than almost everyone he’ll race against Sunday, and carries the added badge of honor that comes with being a former Indy 500 champion.
Montoya also has come painfully close to winning at the Brickyard in a stock car, having finished second in his rookie Sprint Cup season of 2007 and twice led the most laps as a driver for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, before succumbing to trouble, often of his own doing.
He had a five-second lead on the field in the 2009 Brickyard when he was penalized for speeding on pit road with just 35 laps to go. The next year, he started from the pole and was leading again when late pit strategy cost him — and he eventually crashed trying to get back toward the front.
Nonetheless, he has proven he knows how to go fast in a stock car as well as an open-wheel car at Indianapolis.
Throw in the fact that Montoya is competing this weekend in a third car for Team Penske — a familiar bunch, to be certain, and the organization that has won two of the past three races in dominant fashion with driver Brad Keselowski — and it’s no wonder Montoya believes he can pull off the rare feat of winning a Sprint Cup Series race in a cameo outing.
"I feel like coming here we’ve got a good shot," said Montoya, who made his earlier Sprint Cup start this season in June at Michigan, where he finished 18th. "I think Michigan what we wanted to do is understand the cars a little, understand the team and everything. I think we missed the car a little bit setup-wise and I think that’s one of the key things is getting the car closer. We felt we were pretty good in practice. We were pretty close in the middle of practice and we kind of got lost there at the end today, so I think if we can get the car close, we’ll be pretty good."
While Montoya carries the confidence of being a past winner at Indianapolis — not to mention all the laps he’s logged at Indy in a variety of vehicles — four-time Brickyard 400 champion Jimmie Johnson believes Montoya faces a tall order on Sunday.
"I think it is a tough task," Johnson said. "I think we all know and understand how talented he is in a race car, and recently in IndyCar. You look at the time it took (Montoya) to get back up to speed there; it took half a season or something to get going. It will take him time here. Hopefully, he can get the laps that he needs to get up to speed. I think he’ll be towards the front.
"It’s just so tough to be the guy and to find that last half a tenth it takes to succeed when you’re out of the seat and not in the seat."
Montoya himself is quick to note the difference here between a NASCAR stock car and an Indy car.
"It’s so hard to compare," said Montoya, who finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 in May. "An Indy car by yourself in race trim here is actually pretty easy. It’s not Daytona-easy, but it’s pretty easy. In traffic it’s really hard. In qualifying it’s really, really hard in an Indy car because you take all the downforce off. You take 40 to 50 percent of the downforce out of the car, and to be good you’ve got to be balanced. You’re coming out of the corner at 230-240 miles an hour and you’re sliding. You’re so close to getting it completely wrong that I’m glad it’s only four laps. This is a little different."
Different though the cars are, Montoya — who competed full time in the Sprint Cup Series from 2007-2013 — is right at home being back in the Sprint Cup garage.
"I’m just glad to be here," he said. "I felt maybe like an outsider the first six months I came to NASCAR and then it was like normal. It’s good. You know how everything works, so I don’t really feel like an outsider because you know how to do everything. You know how practice works. You know how qualifying works. You know where you need to go to sign in and where to drive around in the garage. It’s fine."
A look back at Jeff Gordon’s victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994