Brickyard owes Juan Pablo Montoya one, but will it pay off Sunday?

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INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya has twice come close to winning the Brickyard 400, only to suffer maladies that kept him from kissing the finish line bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in celebration.

Even though he’s now back racing full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Brickyard jinx has continued to tug at Montoya.

That’s why he’s back for his second Cup race of the season (finished 18th at Michigan in mid-June), and ready to potentially get the payback from IMS that he feels he deserves.

“Yeah, once or twice, and I probably coulda, shoulda and would’ve won the 500 this year as well, but coulda, woulda and shoulda doesn’t count,” Montoya said in a press conference at IMS Friday afternoon. “At least I had a chance and I still think I’ve got a good chance this year.”

Having a chance to gain that elusive Brickyard win — to go along with his win in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 — is both a fortuitous chance and an attempt to break a NASCAR curse for Montoya. When team owner Roger Penske suggested Montoya race in the Brickyard (using Michigan in June as somewhat of a warmup), Montoya had to initially give it some thought.

But the more he rolled the idea around in his mind, the more intriguing it proved to be. Shortly thereafter, Montoya was all-in.

“I think it’s fun,” said Montoya, who will drive the No. 12 Penske Truck Rental Ford Fusion in Sunday’s event. “There’s a lot of history here. I’ve done a lot of racing. I’ve run pretty much everything that’s raced here, even with the bikes, I’ve been in a two-seater bike, so I’ve pretty much done everything here.

“Roger (Penske) gave me the chance to come. They have great cars this year and he gave me the chance to come today with the Penske Truck Rental Ford and see what we can do.”

Even though he ran the most laps of the 46 drivers that took to the track, Montoya had trouble getting speed in Friday’s sole practice session, managing a top speed of just 180.144, good for just 28th on the speed grid and more than 6 mph behind the fastest of the 90-minute run, Matt Kenseth.

“Our race pace, looking to compare with Brad (teammate Brad Keselowski, who was third-fastest at 185.939 mph), looks really, really close so it seems like we’re pretty competitive,” Montoya said.

But he subsequently admitted he had hoped to have a better run.

“I wasn’t that happy with the car to be honest,” Montoya said. “It’s hard because they’re so different and what Brad and Joey (Logano) drive every week and what they look for in the car is a little bit different than what I want out of the car, so we’ve got to try and do a lot in one practice.

“Like today, we went through a lot of stuff and it was good – just short runs – try this, try that just to try to get ready for tomorrow. I think the one thing that is gonna be good for us is we’ve got qualifying tomorrow and not today. Michigan was hard because I ran six laps of practice before qualifying, so at least today we got a lot of running done.”

But Montoya and every other driver may not get to qualify Saturday. The weather forecast is calling for heavy thunderstorms through much of the day, and because IMS does not have lights, Sunday’s starting grid could be set based upon Friday’s practice if Saturday’s final practice session and qualifying are washed out.

If that’s the case, Montoya would start where he practiced Friday: 28th. But regardless of that, he’s confident that perhaps his Brickyard jinx may come to an end.

“I feel like coming here we’ve got a good shot,” said Montoya, whose best efforts in seven starts at the Brickyard have been second in his first start there in 2007, as well as ninth (2013) in his last effort prior to this year’s race.

“I think if we can get the car close we’ll be pretty good. It seems like the race pace is pretty good, I think I’ve been pretty good here and I know what I want out of the car. That makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little better. We’ll see once we put it in qualifying trim what it does.”

Even though NASCAR Sprint Cup is no longer his chosen full-time racing series, Montoya could use a bit of a confidence boost from Indy, given he’s struggled to finishes of 16th, 18th and 19th in his last three IndyCar races after winning at Pocono last month.

When asked if he feels like an insider or outsider at IMS now that he’s an IndyCar regular, Montoya was non-committal.

“Neither, I’m just good to be here,” he said. “I felt maybe like an outsider the first six months I came to NASCAR and then it was like normal.

“It’s good. You know how everything works, so I don’t really feel like an outsider because you know how to do everything. You know how practice works. You know how qualifying works. You know where you need to go to sign in and where to drive around in the garage. It’s fine.”

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F1 2017 driver review: Esteban Ocon

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Esteban Ocon

Team: Sahara Force India
Car No.: 31
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P5 (Spain, Mexico)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 87
Championship Position: 8th

A shining star in Mercedes’ junior programme, Esteban Ocon vaulted fellow youngster Pascal Wehrlein in the pecking order to secure a seat at Force India for 2017 – and boy, did he live up to the hype.

Ocon arrived at Force India with half a season of racing under his belt after his outings with Manor late in 2016, but wasted little time in settling in, scoring points on debut in Australia after winning a thrilling three-way fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso.

The Frenchman spent much of the year close to teammate Sergio Perez – even if things did get a little too close in Canada, Baku and, finally, Spa, prompting the team to introduce team orders – and impressed the entire paddock with his displays.

While no podium was forthcoming, Ocon was often leading the midfield fight, enjoying three straight finishes ahead of Perez from Japan to Mexico. Given how well Perez is rated on-track in the paddock, to have convincingly beaten him in such fashion did a lot for Ocon’s reputation.

The term ‘Oconsistency’ also came into F1’s dictionary as he set a new record for consecutive finishes from his first race, with his retirement in Brazil ending the streak at 27 grands prix. It was also his first retirement in a single-seater race since the 2014 Macau Grand Prix.

The highlight moment arguably came at Monza, though, when Ocon stuck his Force India third on the grid through torrential rain in qualifying. While he would drop to P6 at the checkered flag, the display nevertheless cemented his place as one of F1’s rising stars.

Mercedes rates Ocon very highly, and with Valtteri Bottas’ future beyond 2018 already being questioned by the paddock, a good season could see the youngster move on up to the top table of F1 for 2019. His progression in the next 12 months will be fascinating to keep track of.

Season High: Lining up P3 on the grid at Monza after a rainy qualifying.

Season Low: Clashing with Perez in Baku, costing Force India a possible podium.