by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
Early Sunday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was a light drizzle in the air. When the sun broke through a bit later, I noticed several people looking towards the sky.
The precipitation had caused a circular rainbow to form around the sun. This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as a sun halo, is not entirely uncommon, but it is nonetheless beautiful to see.
“That means that God loves the Indy 500,” remarked one observer.
Well, I’m not one to believe in signs from the heavens but, at the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that it looked like a giant smile in the clouds.
Perhaps this Indy 500 needed a good sign after the gloom and doom that was predicted in the week leading up to the event. Five practice crashes had resulted in three cars becoming airborne and one almost flipping over, leaving fan-favorite, James Hinchcliffe, watching from the hospital with potentially season-ending injuries.
While the concern was ramped up and fueled by some in the mainstream media looking for sensational headlines, the general feeling that I got from drivers and crew members was that there was a lot of confidence in the cars in race trim, and a safe race was expected.
A safe race is exactly what we got. There were a few crashes on the day, but no major injuries and none of the cars took flight. None of the incidents appeared to have anything to do with the much maligned Chevrolet speedway aero-kit.
The pit road actually seemed to be more dangerous than the race track, as Daniel Jang, a crewman for Dale Coyne Racing, suffered a broken ankle in a bizarre incident that involved all three Coyne team cars.
Was it that smile in the sky? I’ll let you decide that for yourself. There was a different sign that I had my eyes on.
On Friday and Saturday before the Indianapolis 500, Juan Pablo Montoya seemed to have a calmness and confidence about him. It reminded me of the young Montoya of 1999 and 2000 that could seemingly win open wheel races with his eyes closed.
“The other drivers should be afraid,” I thought, “very afraid.”
On Sunday afternoon, that hunch came to fruition as the Colombian driver came out on top in a late race battle with his Penske teammate, Will Power, and Ganassi driver, Scott Dixon.
With the win, Montoya becomes the 19th driver to record multiple victories in the storied history of the event. Considering the fact that he has only started the race three times, he now has an astonishing record that shows a 67% success rate and an average finish of 2.3.
With a place already cemented in racing history as one of a few select drivers to win in F1, IndyCar, and NASCAR, Montoya now holds another record. His fifteen years between wins easily eclipsed the old record of ten years, set by A.J. Foyt in 1977.
Asked to compare the two wins, Montoya said, “That (2000) was an easy race, but this was a lot of work today.”
And, indeed, it was a lot of work. With a lack-luster qualifying effort, he started from the fifteenth position. At the drop of the green, the field went right back to yellow with the cars of Takuma Sato and Sage Karam making contact in the first turn.
During the caution laps, Montoya was rear-ended by Andretti AutoSport driver, Simona de Silvestro, damaging his right rear pod.
As he limped to the pits for a replacement part, the dangling pod eventually fell off of the car, depositing itself in turn four and extending the caution. By the time the repairs were made, and the green flew on lap 12, Montoya found himself in 30th place.
“That’s what happens when you qualify bad,” said Montoya. “You find yourself with the wrong crowd.”
As Montoya began to work his way back up through the field, Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan were waging a major battle for the lead.
Any concerns that the new aero-kits would make passing difficult quickly evaporated as Dixon and Kanaan swapped the lead several times with Penske driver, Simon Pagenaud, close behind. By the end of the day, there were 37 lead changes and an untold number of clean passes throughout the field.
In the early stages, Montoya’s car was not exactly great, but he persevered and adjusted it through the race. Reminiscent of another Penske driver named Rick Mears, Montoya kept working until he had the car exactly to his liking when it mattered most.
“We kept adding downforce and adjusting the car.” said Montoya, ” 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 is the last 15 laps. That was fun racing. Probably the best racing. 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.”
This patience and ability to adjust the car through the day shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. With eight seasons spent in NASCAR, Montoya possesses more experience in 500-mile oval races than the rest of the field combined.
While the two racing disciplines are entirely different, the years of experience undoubtedly puts a few tricks up his sleeve.
The field was bunched in the late stages of the race after a lengthy caution to clean up a three car wreck involving Jack Hawksworth, Sebastian Saavedra, and Stefano Coletti.
When the green came out on lap 184, setting up a sprint to the finish, Will Power was leading. Scott Dixon, Montoya and Charlie Kimball were close behind.
The cars traded positions several times as Dixon went to the lead and Power roared back to the lead. Montoya jumped to the front and led briefly, and quickly dropped back to third.
Montoya made a move around Dixon for second. As Dixon tried to close the hole, he was squeezed briefly onto the grass and Montoya slipped through followed by Charlie Kimball.
As all this was going on behind him, Power looked to be a likely winner with precious few laps remaining. Power, however, was battling a small amount of understeer. Sensing the weakness, Montoya grabbed the lead on lap 197 and never looked back.
The fans were treated to a thrilling green-flag finish as Montoya crossed the line 0.105 seconds ahead of Power. Charlie Kimball came home third with Dixon fourth. Graham Rahal took the fifth spot in the highest-finishing Honda car.
There was a general feeling that we would see some parity between the manufacturers come race day, but it was a Chevy playground once again. There was never a moment during the race where a Honda-powered car looked like a serious contender for the win.
Rahal, who has consistently been the top Honda driver this season, summed up his thoughts on the subject, “I really do have the absolute most confidence in Honda and HPD. Obviously we have got to find some horsepower. On the road course, street course, we’ve got to find a little drivability.”
“But at the end of the day, everybody’s working as hard as they can,” continued Rahal, “We’re just going to continue to battle hard. I don’t think anybody felt this would be an easy task. I feel really good about Detroit.(the next event on the schedule) I feel we can have a really good run there and keep our good points streak going. It’s not the easiest as far as being able to beat them. But we’re going to keep trying.”
For team owner, Roger Penske, Sunday marked the 16th Indy 500 win for the team. With Joey Lagano’s victory in the Daytona 500 in February, the Captain joins Chip Ganassi in an elite club of team owners who have won the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 in the same season.
For the fans in attendance, Montoya’s win was tremendously popular. While the driver was sometimes maligned and bad-mouthed by the NASCAR fan base, open-wheel fans have welcomed him back with open arms, and he has not disappointed.
With no plans of slowing down, or going elsewhere, Montoya has found a home at Penske Racing.
“I’ll be here. I told Roger, as long as you want me, I’ll be here.” said Montoya. “Roger loves racing. He has a passion for winning and being the best out of everything he does. When you can be part of that, it’s exciting. You know what I mean? I’m very blessed to be able to be a Penske driver and to have success with him. It’s huge.”
The other drivers should be afraid…very afraid.
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action next weekend for a double-header event, The Dual in Detroit. Montoya enters the event as the season championship leader with a 25 point lead over his teammate, Will Power.