One of IndyCar’s biggest stories, Montoya seeks glory days encore in return

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In two seasons in CART in 1999 and 2000, Juan Pablo Montoya was near worth the price of admission on his own.

Sublime car control and a ridiculous ability to extract the maximum out of what was already a near-1000 hp rocketship made Montoya a thrill to watch in his two seasons with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

But much has changed since that time of Montoya’s last CART start, October 29, 2000 in Fontana. Bill Clinton was President; gas was $1.54 per gallon and Christina Aguilera’s “Come on Over Baby (All I Want is You)” was the number one song in the nation.

And of course Montoya’s been through a career transformation, with six “nearly” seasons in Formula One and seven less-than-successful seasons primarily turning left in NASCAR, driving with Ganassi.

Fourteen years later, as Montoya makes his return to North American open-wheel and now with Team Penske, it’s worth wondering whether his glory days will come back.

As Montoya has said throughout this winter, and through a high volume of test days, it will take time.

“I mean, I feel like I’m not where I want to be yet with the car,” Montoya said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I feel we have come a long way.

“It’s weird. Sometimes we’re really good, some we’re average. The first Sebring test was horrible. I feel like Sonoma was pretty good. I was really happy.

“It’s hard because the new tires are different than the ones I’ve been used to the last three years.  I’m starting to get it, but the problem is I don’t get to put it all together.”

Through various trips to Sebring, Sonoma, Phoenix, Fontana and Barber, Montoya has racked up hundreds of laps this winter in preparation for his return.

He might not be on pace immediately, but he wouldn’t have made the decision to come back if he didn’t think he’d have the best possible equipment, or if it wasn’t going to be a challenge.

“In NASCAR the limit of the car is very easy,” Montoya explained. “The big thing is you’re driving it too hard. In IndyCar, you can’t drive it hard enough, or at least I can’t yet. I’m leaving a lot on the table. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

The biggest change from the CART champ cars Montoya raced in 1999 and 2000 to the Dallara DW12-Chevrolet he’ll be racing in 2014 is the braking. The old cars also had substantially more horsepower, but for Montoya, that adjustment hasn’t been as tough to handle as the braking.

“The biggest thing is braking. The braking is unbelievable,” he said. “We used to have a lot more power. But the initial acceleration is very similar.  It’s when you go through the gears… the braking in the corners, it’s unbelievable.  The grip level of these cars, it’s like an eye-opening, to be honest.”

Already though, Montoya is meshing with teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Castroneves was a then-unheralded, then-surname hyphenated series sophomore (Castro-Neves), driving for the late Carl Hogan’s team, when Montoya made his CART debut in 1999.

“I feel like I got to do a job, push myself,” Montoya said. “It’s good to have a guy like Will on the team that’s really quick and gets the job done. Helio has a lot of experience.

“If I have my experience plus what they do, I think it’s pretty good. I felt like I brought a few things to the team already to make the cars better.  We’ve gotten a little bit better, so I’m pretty happy.”

Heading into St. Petersburg, the street course, Montoya anticipates a struggle. But by the end of the year, he wants to be in race-winning and potentially title-challenging form.

“That’s one of the hardest challenges, the first time on a street course, St. Petersburg,” Montoya said. “I think it’s going to be eye-opening.  I think it’s going to be a slow-building weekend, getting comfortable in the car.

“(But) winning the Indy 500 and fighting for the championship, you would say that would be a good season.”

Lastly, there is the timing element of this. At 38, Montoya’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and felt it imperative to give himself one more chance to come back to the series where he initially made his name.

“If I look back at everything I’ve done, the most fun and best racing I’ve done in my career, it’s been in IndyCar,” he said. “This was the perfect time to do it. I felt like two years from now, wouldn’t be able to do it. Timing-wise, it was ideal. So we’ll see.”

Eli Tomac, Ken Roczen’s two-man battle in Motocross provides surprises

Rich Shepherd, ProMotocross
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The 2019 Motocross season is one-third in the books and the title battle may have already come down to a two-man contest, while the pair of contenders might just be a little surprising in their own way.

Strictly by the numbers, no one can count Eli Tomac’s early season charge of first- and second-place finishes shocking, but threepeating in Motocross is such an incredibly difficult feat that no one would have been surprised to see him struggle out of the gates either. And in fact, that is precisely what happened.

Tomac came out of the gates slow in Round 1 and was seventh by the end of Lap 1 of Moto 1 – hardly the auspicious start he hoped for. He rebounded only as far as fourth and that ultimately cost him a chance to win the overall. Tomac won Moto 2 to claim second overall.

In Round 2, Tomac found his rhythm and won both Motos and grabbed the red plate. For the moment, he had the momentum with three consecutive Moto wins.

Tomac stumbled again in Round 3 – this time finishing only fifth in Moto 1 and earning only 16 points to dig a deep hole that eventually surrendered the red plate to Ken Roczen.

It was at Thunder Valley in Round 3 that a pattern emerged. Tomac would not make it easy on himself early in the day, but was more than capable of winning the second Motos to overcome his deficit.

That Roczen has won this season is also not a surprise in itself. Many believed his ascent to the top step of the podium was way overdue.

That he has run so well, however, was not entirely expected at the start of the season. Since injuring both arms in a pair of accidents, Roczen came tantalizingly close to snapping his winless streak a dozen times. He won heat races during the Supercross season and finished second at Anaheim I, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Seattle earlier this year.

He just couldn’t secure the overall win.

Roczen’s Moto 1 victory at Hangtown might have been the precursor to another disappointing weekend, but once Tomac got into the lead, Roczen zeroed in on the Kawasaki’s back tire and finished second in route to the overall victory.

Roczen lost the overall and the red plate to Tomac in Round 2 at Pala, but he stood on the podium in both Motos. Roczen podiumed twice again in Round 3 while taking that overall victory to regain the red plate in what has become a seesaw affair in the early part of the 2019 season.

Last week, Roczen looked more like Tomac with his desperate struggle in Moto 1 and sixth-place finish. That was the first (and so far only) time this season that he failed to stand on the podium.

Roczen’s Moto 2 win last week was just enough to put him second overall with barely enough points to force a tie at the top of the leaderboard with 176 points apiece.

Meanwhile, Tomac failed to win either Moto with a third in the first race and runner-up finish in the second.

The moral victory and advantage may shift to Roczen this week.

As they have swapped the victory in the first four rounds with Roczen winning the odd-numbered events, he sees this weekend’s Round 5 as an opportunity.

“I’m looking forward to next weekend’s race,” Roczen said in a team press release. “The track is sandy. It’s very similar—actually almost identical—to what I ride on a regular basis at home.”

Tomac and Roczen enter Round 5 with a 32-point advantage over two riders tied for third in the standings.

So far Zach Osborne and Jason Anderson have not been in the same league as the leaders, but it only takes one slip of the wheel to fall out of the points in in a race and allow these racers to close the gap.

Season passes can be purchased at NBC Sports Gold.

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