Juan Pablo Montoya drove a superb race on Sunday to score his second Indy 500 victory and his first with Roger Penske’s all-powerful team. Montoya thus wrote himself into the Speedway’s history books as the driver with the longest stretch – 15 years – between wins in the 500 while Penske recorded its 16th win in the big race and first since 2006.
Montoya put on a tremendous show after falling to the back of the field following an incident under an early yellow flag. Simona de Silvestro misjudged her speed and clipped the tail of Montoya’s car, damaging his machine’s rear bodywork and wing.
After a pitstop for repairs, including a new rear wing, Montoya rejoined in 25th place and began steadily working his way through the field. By lap 50 he was up to 15th. Another 25 laps and he was running eighth and by half-distance he was in the hunt battling with leaders Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Will Power.
Over the race’s final 250 miles Montoya dueled furiously with team-mates Pagenaud and Power plus Ganassi team-mates Dixon and Kanaan. Juan took the lead for the first time on lap 165 but he was soon repassed by Dixon who looked to be the man to beat for most of the race. Scott led 84 laps, considerably more than anyone else, but when it came down to the final shootout over the last 15 laps he found himself struggling with understeer.
Away from the final restart Dixon attacked leader Power, taking the lead around the outside going into turn three. For a few laps Dixon and Power traded the lead back-and-forth passing each other around the outside in either turn one or turn three with Montoya running hard in their slipstream and Kimball doing his best to hang onto the leaders.
Ten laps to go and it all started to happen as Dixon and Power traded outside passes inside the same lap and Montoya took advantage of the situation to launch his attack. For a few fleeting moments they were three-wide through turn one as Montoya exercised his renowned cojones to seize the lead.
Next time around Power shot around the outside of Montoya while Dixon followed him through into second and for the next four laps it was Power, Dixon and Montoya with Kimball clinging on to them. During these laps Montoya looked ferocious, sticking his nose as close to Dixon’s tail as he dared, and on lap 197 he attacked Dixon around the outside in turn three. The following lap he charged around the outside of Power in turn one while Kimball got by team-mate Dixon for third.
“I just couldn’t turn the car,” Dixon said. “We were fighting the car a little bit at the end. Every time we came to the apex of turn two or turn four the front end just wouldn’t hang on and I had to breathe it. I was okay when I was leading or in second, but when I got back to third and fourth I couldn’t go anywhere.”
Going into the race’s last two laps it was a Penske party as Montoya and Power edged clear of Kimball and Dixon. Power did all he could to take a run at Montoya but he couldn’t get close enough to make a move as Juan passed beneath the chequered flag one tenth ahead of his team-mate for a resounding Penske 1-2 finish. Kimball impressed with an excellent drive to third, three quarters of a second behind the Penske pair and a few tenths ahead of a disappointed Dixon.
“Congrats to Juan,” Dixon offered. “He drove a hell of a race and made a good comeback from the back of the field.”
Needless to say, Montoya was delighted with his victory. “It was hard to pass but we kept adding downforce and adjusting the car,” he reported. “At one point I was running eighth and I could barely keep up with them. At that stage we really didn’t have anything for them, but we kept adjusting the car and making it a little better and a little better. That’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to stay on top of the track and how it’s changing.”
Juan said he didn’t believe he could win the race until the final laps. “When Dixon passed us after the restart I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s strong!’ I stuck my nose up underneath him but I was surprised at how easy he passed us. At that point with eight laps to go I had no idea we had a chance to win it because we looked so equal but my car kept getting better and better.
“My car was well balanced. You wouldn’t believe how much front wing we put into my car today. It was a lot! But we got to the point where I could run behind somebody and run right up underneath their tail. When you’re behind two or three cars it’s tough to get a run to be able to pass but you can do it with one car.”
Montoya wasn’t sure he had the race won until he got to turn three on the last lap. “When I got through turn two I saw Will pushed and the gap got bigger. I turned into turns three and four and I saw he wasn’t close enough and I said, ‘Ho, ho! I’ve got this!’
“That was fun,” he added. “It was great racing with Will and Dixon. We understand the risks and we understand what it takes.”
Juan believes Penske’s four-car team is the strongest in IndyCar this year. “I think the biggest thing is that Roger has four bullets while Chip has two,” he observed. “With 30 laps to go all four of us were in the top five or six. It’s pretty cool to see that. But when you’re fighting with your team-mate it’s hard. You want to run as hard as you can but you don’t want to make any mistakes. I know what it means to Roger to win this race and I’m really proud to achieve that for him.
“I told my guys there’s a hundred ways to throw this away. The guy who makes the fewest mistakes is going to have the best shot at winning the race and today we executed. We made a couple of mistakes but then we got our composure back.”
After all the criticism IndyCar has taken in recent weeks following a series of accidents during practice for this year’s 500, Montoya said Chevrolet and Honda have done an excellent job with their respective aero kits.
“I think the aero kits have been a huge plus,” Juan declared. “We were able to race hard together today and Chevy brought a really good motor. The motors were really, really good and our cars were fantastic. I think IndyCar is going in the right direction.”
Penske added his observations. “When you think about how we started the month and all the issues we had and the negative things that came out about the race cars,” Penske remarked. “At the end, over the last 15 laps, it could have been anybody’s race. They raced clean and they passed. The package worked well.
“You never knew who was going to lead the next lap down the front straightaway or the back. Once I saw our two cars pull away and Dixon was battling with Kimball it gave us a really good chance. The question was, is it going to be Power or Montoya?
“I think the race was great for the fans and hopefully this race will correct some of the negative publicity we got earlier in the month. This kind of racing at 220-plus-mph for lap after lap shows how good these drivers and cars are.
“Again, anybody could have won this race. The difference was that Juan and his team worked on their car and made it better. The difference at the end was that he was able to stay under someone and be able to make a pass. To me, the fan noise is what it’s all about and it was great to see all the excitement from the fans at the finish.”
America’s most successful team owner discussed the domination of this year’s 500 by his and Ganassi’s cars. “I was watching the leader board from the beginning and you could see the top seven or eight cars were our cars and Chip’s,” Penske said. “You could see Kanaan wanted it bad and Dixon is such a master around here, but I knew as the race went on things would change because of the heat and the rubber. Rick Mears said to Juan, ‘You’ve got to keep changing your car.’ And they kept dialing it in.”
Penske also talked about Montoya’s charge through the field. “I could see Juan coming up through the field and it was clear he had a good car. Juan is a fighter. I felt Will had it but Ganassi and Dixon seemed to be so easy and strong. I was waiting for Dixon to go by us at the end but he just didn’t have it. I think it helped that our guys were there together. We had two guys and they had one. Kimball showed up at the end but I think that helped us get clear of Dixon.
“I think it was our day,” he added. “Last year we missed it by half a car length. It’s a credit to the guys who did the aero kits. It was safe and what the world saw here at Indianapolis was the greatest spectacle in racing.”
Penske also discussed his decision to run four cars this year. “We committed to running four cars. First we added a car for Juan last year, then we added Pagenaud this year. He was available and we took the opportunity to add him to the team but obviously that put pressure on the team. Sometimes we’ve seen teams run multiple cars and they don’t get the speed or the execution.
“I feel we were very competitive here last year and of course, Will won the championship. But we were ready this year. We had good cars. We were disappointed with how we qualified and I think Juan was too, but we focused on the race. When you see the finish and we had four cars in the top ten and three in the top seven, I don’t know how we can do any better.”
Commented Montoya: “Roger loves racing. He has a passion for winning and being the best at everything he does and to be part of that is fantastic. I’m very blessed to be a Penske driver. It’s cool when you’re here. If you don’t have success it’s your own fault. They give you a full toolbox and great people to work with.”
Graham Rahal turned in a great drive to come from the middle of the starting field to finish fifth, beating Marco Andretti across the line by two tenths for the honour of best-finishing Honda-powered car in the field.
After running with the leaders most of way Castroneves eventually finished seventh, coming home close behind Rahal and Andretti. CFH Racing teammates JR Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden drove solid races to finish eighth and ninth while Simon Pagenaud wound up 10th after leading 35 laps.
“I think early on Simon had the best car of all four of them,” Penske said. “He ran very well out front but on a restart another car got into him. I thought he drove a great race and did a great job. He had the car to run with Will and Juan. He did a terrific job and is a real asset to the team.”
This year’s IndyCar Series is shaping up as a straight fight between Penske and Ganassi, but based on what we saw at Indianapolis this month, the Captain and his team are going to be awfully hard to beat.