He’s baaaack: Juan Pablo Montoya has high hopes for NASCAR race at Michigan

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Juan Pablo Montoya racing in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan likely boils down to one of two things:

1) He has some unfinished business from his previous seven-year stint in NASCAR, or,

2) Old habits are hard to break.

Whatever the case, while Montoya has returned to a full-time open-wheel ride in IndyCar this season, he just can’t fully quit stock-car racing.

Especially when he thinks he has a chance to win in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

“Absolutely, our goal is to win the race,” Montoya said. “Michigan is a huge race for Roger (Penske) and for the manufacturers. It would be an honor for me to be able to do that for them.

“We tested the No.12 Ford several weeks ago at Nashville and it was really quick. I felt like I got up to speed in no time. That said, we realize that it’s going to be difficult. The Cup Series is always evolving so when you aren’t in the car every week you can get behind easily. But I have two teammates that are among the fastest drivers every race (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), so I know the speed will be there to contend.”

Sunday will be the first of two Sprint Cup races Montoya will compete in this season, the other being the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis next month.

Montoya is enjoying the challenge of returning to IndyCar, currently seventh in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, with three top-five finishes, including a season-best third-place showing last Saturday at Texas.

But don’t expect Montoya to make a full-time return to NASCAR anytime soon.

“For me it’s more of an opportunity to maybe win a race or two here,” Montoya said in a media session Friday at MIS. “This year we’ve got two really good shots. This is probably one of the best tracks for the Fords.

“They always excel here and have a car that can win, and the way Team Penske is running right now, if it clicks from the beginning, and we hope it does, we might have a shot at winning this.”

Montoya was twice in contention to win the Brickyard but ultimately came up short each time. In the past, he’s called failing to win there as one of the most frustrating defeats that continues to gnaw at him to this day.

“Going to the Brickyard is a place that I run really well,” Montoya said. “When we ran bad we were always in the top 10, so going there in a car like this you’re definitely looking at a shot at a win as well.”

Montoya hasn’t exactly had the greatest history at Michigan – with just three top-10 finishes in 14 starts – but he feels confident that Team Penske equipment will make up for his past shortcomings there, as well as serve as a tune-up for Indy.

“To be honest with you, with the way Team Penske is running here it’s a hell of a chance,” said Montoya, who will start 28th in Sunday’s race. “You see Joey’s (Logano) comments sometimes and he says it was a terrible day and he finished fifth or sixth, so from my history here I would have killed to have a car that would do that.

“Our goal here, I think, is we’ll take it as it comes this weekend, but the way really look at it is it’s really good preparation for the Brickyard.

“The way Team Penske is running right now, they look like every week they have a shot at winning, so if we do a good job here and we have a decent race we’ll easily get a top 10 and if I’m really comfortable in the car we could even look at a win.

“I think this track, with my background in open wheel, coming here is gonna play into my hands a little bit because it’s a really fast track. It’s a track you don’t brake, it’s a track where you’re really controlling the throttle and you do that a lot in Indy Car.

“Roger gave me the opportunity to come here and we want to make SKF (race sponsor) and the Ford group proud of what we can do.”

Added crew chief Greg Erwin, “Juan Montoya is a world-class driver. Any crew chief would want to work with a driver with that kind of experience. … It’s going to be a fun weekend. Obviously we aren’t worrying about points, so we are able to lay it on the line.”

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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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