On the grid just before the command was given for the drivers to start their engines for this year’s revived Pocono 500, veteran Penske mechanic Jon Bouslog said he was convinced his man Juan Pablo Montoya was ready to score his first IndyCar win for Roger Penske. “As long as we do our job in the pits and don’t make any mistakes, Juan will be in a position to win,” Bouslog said.
And sure enough, Bouslog was right. Montoya took his first IndyCar pole with Team Penske at the tricky, three-cornered, 2.5-mile Pocono oval and then ran a strong, smart race to score a 1-2 sweep for Penske with Hélio Castroneves chasing Montoya across the line. Montoya was in the hunt all the way, usually running among the first three and leading 45 of the 200 laps.
But the Colombian also managed to get excellent fuel mileage, putting himself in an even stronger position as the race wore on. Only one yellow flag interrupted the 500 miles – contributing to a race average of 202.402 mph, the third fastest IndyCar race ever and the fastest 500-mile race on record for Indycars – and on the race’s only restart with 35 laps to go Montoya made what turned out to be a race-winning outside pass of team-mate Will Power. He clipped Power’s right rear tyre with his left front wing as he went by, knocking the end plate off, but the damage didn’t affect his speed.
“I had to do it,” Montoya said. “It was one of those moves where you do it or not. That was the winning move and I had to do it. The end plate generates more downforce and our pace slowed down a little bit. I could run 217s, 218s on my own. Track position is everything and that was the only shot I had of passing Will. I had to take it. We did it and it was fun.”
From there, Montoya dictated the pace, hoping that Tony Kanaan would have to make a last-minute stop for fuel. A late yellow flag might have given Kanaan a chance to win, but the race ran unencumbered to the chequered flag and Kanaan had to stop with just four laps to go. Kanaan led 78 laps, more than anyone else, but came home 11th after his late stop.
“That was a big relief,” Montoya said about Kanaan’s final stop. “I knew there was no way he was going to make it to the end. For him to make it he had to run really slow and if he did that we would have got to him. If he ran a little bit hard he was going to run out of gas and that’s what happened.”
1. Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske
2. Hélio Castroneves, Penske
3. Carlos Muñoz, Andretti
4. Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi
5. Scott Dixon, Ganassi
6. Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Peterson
7. Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson
8. Josef Newgarden, Fisher Hartman
9. Marco Andretti, Andretti
10. Will Power, Penske
11. Tony Kanaan, Ganassi
12. James Hinchcliffe, Andretti
13. Ed Carpenter, Carpenter
14. Justin Wilson, Coyne
15. Sebastián Saavedra, KVR
16. Sébastien Bourdais, KVR
17. Charlie Kimball, Ganassi
18. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti
Graham Rahal, RLL
Carlos Huertas, Coyne
Takuma Sato, Foyt
Jack Hawksworth, Herta
Montoya thus led team-mate Castroneves home while Power blew the chance of a Penske 1-2-3 by incurring a drive-through pit penalty for squeezing Castroneves not once, but twice, as he tried to pass Power going into turn one with 30 laps to go. This is the fifth such penalty Power has received this year and resulted in him finishing 10th at Pocono.
“I went wide and actually touched the brakes,” Power said about the incident. “I was heading over and over and over, and he is my team-mate. I don’t know what to say. Another penalty and another drive-through and another really good opportunity lost.”
Castroneves said he expected no less from Power. “That’s the beauty of Team Penske,” Castroneves remarked. “There are no team orders. We race hard and we push for it. We’re pushing hard and fighting for the championship. Obviously, we’re not supposed to take each other out, but we race hard. I wasn’t expecting anything different to be honest. In the end, we were racing very aggressively.”
In fact, Power and Castroneves are now tied atop IndyCar’s points table. Houston winner Simon Pagenaud finished sixth at Pocono and is third 44 points behind Power and Castroneves while Montoya’s victory moved him into fourth 55 points behind his team-mates.
“I want to thank Roger for believing in me after so many years out of open-wheel,” Montoya said. “He believed I could do it and here were are. It’s awesome. I knew it was going to take a little time to perform, but having the opportunity to run with Roger is unbelievable. I’ve been working very hard physically and mentally to get here and I’m in a good place right now. I’m really happy.”
Montoya discussed how he won the race. “You’ve got to be patient,” he observed. “You’ve got to run smart then the opportunity will come. On the first lap I changed my fuel mixture and turned down the engine and was just saving fuel from that moment. I felt that’s what we needed to do early: open the fuel windows the most we could and I felt we did a good job of that. From there it was a matter of being on the right strategy and making the right calls.
“I feel like I do a really good job of saving fuel. It’s pretty cool when you make good fuel mileage like that and still be fast. Things have been going good, but you never know when you’re going to get that win. I was lucky the front wing didn’t break more on the move with Will because it could have taken me out of the race and it could have taken six more months to get a win.
“It’s been a long road,” Juan continued. “It’s a lot harder than people realise. Driving open-wheel cars is a lot different than what I’ve been doing the last few years and it was going to take time. I’ve just been working on it and I feel we’ve got to step it up and work harder because we’re now in a position to win the championship.
“We’ve been having really good finishes but if we want to win the championship we’ve got to make sure we perform a little better on street courses. We haven’t run on any short ovals so I have no idea what to expect at Iowa or Milwaukee. Hopefully, it will be as good as it was here.
“I think the good thing with who I am and my character is can kind of unplug myself and go at it. I still don’t care, but you can run a lot smarter races. NASCAR really showed me to look at the bigger picture that I never did before. I probably lost Formula 1 championships from not looking at the bigger picture. It’s a shame that you can’t turn the clock back to being 20 again and apply that experience, but that’s what it is.
“I was nearly 200 points behind and now I’m within 50 points. I’m still a ways away but I think people know that I’m coming. It’s definitely a plus.”
Montoya concluded with high praise for his boss. “Roger’s the man,” he declared. “It’s unbelievable everything he does. He’s head and shoulders above everybody else. That’s where everybody wants to be. He’s an example to everybody. I knew Roger a little bit, but now that I work for him it’s unbelievable because he knows everybody’s names. The way he does things, you’re not surprised why he’s kicking everybody’s ass.”
With seven races to go the only man who can stop Penske from winning this year’s IndyCar championship is Simon Pagenaud. But it will be a tall order for the talented Frenchman to fight off the might of Penske and his trio of drivers.