Montoya to drive in IndyCar next year for Team Penske

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NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Juan Pablo Montoya will be returning to open-wheel racing after all. But who could’ve predicted that he’d be suiting up for Roger Penske?

Earlier today, Penske Racing announced that Montoya, the 1999 CART champion and the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner, will take the controls of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet in the IZOD IndyCar Series on a full-time basis in 2014 – joining current series points leader Helio Castroneves and Will Power.

Montoya has spent the last seven seasons in Sprint Cup, but was recently informed that he would not return to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing next season. He had been linked to a possible IndyCar ride with Andretti Autosport, as well as a new Sprint Cup drive with Furniture Row Racing, which is losing Kurt Busch at season’s end.

But this past week, Montoya informed Andretti Autosport that he would not join them. Instead, he and “The Captain” will team up in what could prove to be a major overall boost, both on the track and off, for INDYCAR.

“I am really excited to join this legendary team beginning next year,” Montoya said in a statement. “I have had the opportunity to drive for some of the best racing teams in the world and I have always admired Roger Penske and his organization. I consider it an honor to be offered the opportunity to drive for Team Penske.”

In his own thoughts, Penske was equally cordial to Montoya.

“Juan is a proven winner at all levels of motorsport,” he said. “He has won a lot of races and championships and he has an extremely passionate fan base. We look forward to building on his successes together and we believe he will be a great addition to Team Penske.”

Following his success with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in CART, Montoya hopped the pond to Formula One, where he would compete with Williams (2001-2004) and then McLaren (2005-2006). After a six-year run in F1 that saw him capture seven Grand Prix wins, he made the massive switch to stock car racing full-time in 2007 with Ganassi’s NASCAR program.

Montoya was hyped considerably as a potential hook for NASCAR to grab the coveted Latino/Hispanic market. But while he’s been able to notch a pair of Sprint Cup wins (both on road courses), he’s been unable to truly escape mid-pack status in the series. He’s only made the Chase once, back in 2009, when he finished eighth in the championship.

But now, Montoya has a chance to revitalize his career. He’ll likely face a learning curve with the new-to-him Dallara DW12 upon his return to IndyCar, but one assumes that with his talent and the environment at Team Penske, he can get up to speed again before too long.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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