INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Welcome back, Juan.
Friday marked the official return to Verizon IndyCar Series on-track action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the month of May with the INDYCAR Grand Prix son the road course. It also marked the return of a former champion – Juan Pablo Montoya.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1999 Indy car champion drove fulltime for Team Penske the last three years, but was replaced in the No. 2 Chevrolet this season by Josef Newgarden. Montoya agreed to return to drive for the Roger Penske organization for the two races this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, starting with today’s INDYCAR Grand Prix on the 2.439-mile road course.
INDYCAR GRAND PRIX: Qualifying results
It’s almost like the 41-year-old Colombian was never away. In Verizon P1 Award qualifying on Friday, Montoya pushed the No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet into the Firestone Fast Six final round and will start from the fifth position in today’s 85-lap race (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
“It feels good (to be back),” Montoya said after posting a best lap of 1 minute, 8.2478 seconds (128.655 mph) in the Firestone Fast Six as Team Penske gobbled up four of the top five qualifying spots.
“I had a good time off and it’s nice to be back. I think it was nice to get a road course race in before the (Indianapolis) 500. I think that’s huge for Team Penske, too, as well as guys from Fitzgerald Glider Kits to support the program. We’ve just got to make them as proud as we can.”
Despite a fast start out of the gate, the focus for Montoya’s return comes on May 28 with the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“Anything we do, the laps we do and pits that we do (in the INDYCAR Grand Prix) is going to be a bonus for the 500,” said Montoya, who claimed the CART championship on a tiebreaker over Dario Franchitti but lost out on the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series title the same way to Scott Dixon. “I've got a really experienced group of (crew) guys, but they haven't done it in a while. So, I think we get the pressure of people just to leave the screw-ups this week (and not during the Indy 500), know what I mean?”
Teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves emphasized the value of having a driver like Montoya – the 2000 and 2015 Indianapolis 500 winner – back in the Team Penske camp for the month.
“Just having a really good driver with that information,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s just amazing the amount of data we have now with so many good drivers on the team.
“It would be cool if that was the whole year, having five guys.”
But does every positive have a negative? For his teammates, the addition of Montoya also brings with it another tough challenger on race day.
“There’s no question it makes it harder to win the race because if Juan has a shot, you know he’s going to be hard to beat,” Power admitted.
Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was as surprised as anyone to see how quickly his teammate came out of the gates Friday. Even if the Brazilian’s explanation confused some.
“I mean, are you kidding me?” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “This guy, six months off, is, that right? Got six months off and it just goes like with the salt.
“You know, ‘like with the salt?’ This guy comes like nothing happened. It's unbelievable. He's a pretty major talent, obviously, and I'm glad he's on our team. But it just shows that our cars are very good and, when you match with a good driver, too, it's right up there.”
Montoya had his own comical reason for the two-race comeback effort, which was ironic considering his usual no-nonsense approach.
“I really had to come back,” Montoya quipped, “because I felt the atmosphere was too quiet and too serious on the team without me.”
Montoya and the rest of the 22-car field will run through a final 30-minute warmup practice at 11 a.m. ET today that streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Live coverage of the fourth annual INDYCAR Grand Prix begins at 3 p.m. on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and at 3:30 p.m. on ABC.