IndyCar: Montoya a legitimate title contender heading into final seven races

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Perhaps the overlooked aspect of Juan Pablo Montoya’s win last Sunday at Pocono Raceway, his first upon his open-wheel return to the Verizon IndyCar Series, was how close it brought him into the championship picture.

He now sits fourth overall on 391 points, 55 back of Team Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, who are tied with 446. His recent statistical surge has brought him to this point.

Montoya’s win in the double-points Pocono INDYCAR 500 fueled by Sunoco netted him 102 points. Along with 82 for the Indianapolis 500, is the second highest scoring driver in the two double-points races this year with 184, only behind Castroneves, who has accumulated 198.

The crazy thing is, had Montoya’s Saturday qualifying speed at Indianapolis been fast enough to get him into Sunday’s Fast Nine shootout, he could have gained enough points to be leading the double-points points standings. He lost 16 points to Castroneves as a result of his qualifying 10th, while Castroneves made it onto Row 2 and was able to bank points on both Saturday and Sunday.

On ovals in total, the gap is just two points between Castroneves (222) and JPM (220). Montoya’s obviously had more time on ovals than the rest of the IndyCar field combined with his NASCAR experience. Still, just because he’s still turning left doesn’t mean that it’s a totally natural transition from handling the beast of a stock car to a lighter, more aerodynamic, more nimble but lesser horsepower IndyCar.

Montoya has two remaining elements to conquer in his final seven races if he’s going to parlay this comeback into a potential surprise championship.

For one, he’s yet to drive a short oval, and with Iowa and Milwaukee still to go, it’s his last re-learning curve to master. Yet the way the points extrapolate, he can afford to have off weekends on one or either of those weekends because it’s not a double-points weekend (like Indianapolis, Pocono or Fontana) or a doubleheader weekend (Toronto still to go). With just standard points, a bad weekend is somewhat negated.

The other thing he has to improve, perhaps more crucially, is his road and street course qualifying. Montoya has yet to start better than sixth on a road or street course this year.

His starts thus far? 18, 16, 8, 8, 6, 15, 11, 14.

He’s turned those starts into these results: 15, 4, 21, 16, 12, 13, 2, 7. So in five of eight, he’s ended higher than he’s started.

Granted, Montoya now is in a much more comfortable place with Firestone’s red, alternate tires – and those who remember his propensity to lay down balls-to-the-wall fliers in CART qualifying in 1999 and 2000 will no doubt look forward to Montoya doing likewise once he gets a better grip (no pun intended).

That’s left him too much work to do on race days, and although he’s made the most of it – particularly at Houston two weeks ago – he’s not yet back to being ranked among the top five road and street course drivers in the series.

Again, the key is not yet. He has the equipment, he has the momentum, and most importantly, he has the least amount of pressure compared to teammates Castroneves and Power, whose careers have been overshadowed by that one element missing from their resumes: a series championship.

To close the 55-point gap, all Montoya needs is one or two more race wins and for a couple of slip-ups from his teammates. He’s already more than halved the gap since the Indianapolis 500, when Montoya sat 122 points behind then-series leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, and 82 behind Power.

Montoya has wins at Mid-Ohio (1999) and Milwaukee (2000) on his scorecard, and he’s also won at Sonoma in NASCAR (2007). So he’s coming to some tracks where he has had past success.

JPM can steal the title if he makes those couple improvements and closes this points. He may also have the mental edge to where he could leave his teammates asking come Fontana the last weekend of August, “how did we let this happen… again?”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.