Montoya starts final drive for IndyCar title at Pocono
PHILADELPHIA (AP) Juan Pablo Montoya turned the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp parking lot into a showcase for some pace-car burnouts.
Montoya screeched and spun the poor Pocono Raceway car - with defensive back Fletcher Cox in the passenger's seat - through the lot and left behind circular trails of skid marks and the scent of burnt rubber.
Montoya hopped out, beaming: ''Not bad.''
It's the kind of show he could put on if he clinched the IndyCar championship - and the Colombian star is the driver to beat down the stretch.
Montoya, the Indianapolis 500 champion, has had a banner year in his second season driving for Team Penske. He holds a nine-point lead in the series standings as the series shifts Sunday to the 2 1/2-mile triangle at Pocono Raceway. When it's over, the title will be decided Aug. 30 in the season finale on the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
''Let's be honest, we've had an awesome year,'' Montoya said Friday. ''We've got a 500 win. We've done everything. If we win the championship, it's a plus. Do we deserve it? Yeah. But deserving it and getting it are two different things.''
Montoya didn't want to come out and proclaim himself the driver to beat - he said veteran champ Scott Dixon was his biggest threat - but he was confident he could win it all just two years into his open wheel comeback.
''You never count it before it's yours,'' Montoya said, ''but things are going well.''
Montoya was the hottest driver in IndyCar until a little bump the last two races let other drivers storm back into the title picture.
It's a three-contender strong sprint to the finish, with at least two more drivers lurking nearby to shake up the standings and steal a championship.
1. Montoya. Team Penske. He won for the first time in the CART/IndyCar Series since 2000 and had his first major victory since he won a road-course race at Watkins Glen in NASCAR in 2010 when he took the checkered flag last season at Pocono. Montoya won from the pole and snagged the lead for good when Tony Kanaan was forced to pit for fuel with four laps left.
Montoya seemed like he was headed toward a runaway championship after eight straight top-10 finishes - the second one in that run was Indy - stamped the former NASCAR driver as the heavy favorite.
Graham Rahal has outscored Montoya in each of the last four races to tighten the lead. Montoya's night at Iowa Speedway lasted just nine laps after his No. 2 car flew into the wall. Montoya finished 11th at Mid-Ohio in a race won by Rahal that put the championship up for grabs with two races left.
Montoya has four wins in 10 career 500-mile races - he's a two-time Indy 500 winner - has led in all 10 500 milers and his average finish is 3.3.
He says: ''I think I'm really good at setting up the car on the ovals. I do a really good job at understanding what the car needs to be good, and I think that makes a big difference.''
2. Rahal, 9 points out. Rahal Letterman Racing. When Montoya scuffled, Rahal shined. He has been tough down the stretch with five straight top 10s. Oh, and two of those were wins. He took the checkered flag at Fontana to pair with his Mid-Ohio triumph.
He improved in the standings from Toronto to Iowa, going 5-4-3-2. Will Pocono park him at No. 1?
Maybe, but the track has given him fits. Rahal finished 18th and 19th since the series returned here in 2013 and he's never started better than 14th.
He says: ''Ultimately, the most important thing is to be the champion.''
3. Dixon, 34 points out. Chip Ganassi Racing. Count out Dixon? Not a chance, mate. Like Montoya, Dixon had a rough outing at Iowa (18th) but otherwise had been as consistent as expected from of open wheel's greats. He has two wins and the New Zealander has found a home at Pocono.
He won in 2013 and was fifth last year - a sign that he should be in the mix in the finale for a fourth IndyCar championship.
He says: ''I think for us, you're going to hope for a little bit of bad luck or a mechanical issue with Juan, but those are generally not seen too many times in the current racing formula.''
4. Helio Castroneves, 58 points out. Team Penske. Helio Castroneves has danced his way, climbed his way, fought the law his way and raced his way into the IndyCar record book. He's done it all - except win the championship.
At 40, Castroneves is running out of years to fill the lone void on an otherwise sterling resume.
He's winless for Roger Penske for the first time since 2011 and has finished 23rd, 11th and 15th in three of the last four races. Pocono could point Castroneves toward the right track of ending the drought at Sonoma. He was eighth in 2013 and was runner-up behind his Team Penske teammate Montoya last year.
He says: ''I will do exactly what I did not do regarding this challenge, because it certainly didn't work in the past.''
5. Will Power, 59 points out. Team Penske. Power is pretty much the last driver who can stake even a feint claim at winning the championship, but the reigning series champion needs almost everything to go right for him in the last two races.
Power, with one win this season, needs a dash of good luck - and checkered flags - if he has any chance of defending his championship.
He finished a solid fourth and 10th in two Pocono races driving for Penske.
He says: ''I feel I have a pretty good chance if I win my last two races.''
6-10. The top 10 drivers in points are still mathematically eligible for the championship headed to Pocono. With double points available at Sonoma, any driver within 104 points of the leader after Pocono still has a shot to win it all.
That means Sebastien Bourdais, Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud can all dream of hoisting that championship trophy for at least one more race. But none of them should power on the iPad and start typing up notes for a championship speech.