Montoya’s evolution evident after statement victory in St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG – On a weekend when drivers with experience dating back to the 1990s or early-to-mid 2000s seemed to dominate, one somewhat unlikely driver stood above them all Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Juan Pablo Montoya.

It’s not that Montoya wasn’t expected to be a factor, but the storylines at Team Penske heading into the season-opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series season centered around his three teammates.

Will Power is the defending champion. Longtime rival Simon Pagenaud had joined up in a new fourth car. Helio Castroneves was in the news earlier in the weekend for a partner extension for Hitachi.

So Montoya almost flew in under the radar heading into Sunday’s race, but delivered the win courtesy of an excellent middle stint on Firestone’s primary black tires, and a perfect defense against Power’s one passing attempt at Turn 10 on Lap 99.

Post-race, the story centered on the evolution of the man almost as much as the evolution of the day’s events itself.

Montoya swept through the IndyCar paddock like a ridiculously strong Colombian cup of coffee in 1999 and 2000.

He took no prisoners. He was fast, he kicked ass, and you dealt with it. But he wasn’t necessarily the most personable driver.

Then he went to Formula 1, NASCAR and came back to IndyCar.

Today, in St. Petersburg, he took the immediate moments after the win to celebrate with the fans in victory lane.

“I’ve never been a big believer what people say about me, to be honest,” Montoya said in the post-race press conference. “As long as I feel I’m doing a really good job, I’m driving the wheels off the car, the people I drive for are happy, that’s all that really matters.

“Do I pay maybe a little more attention to the fans? Yeah, I would say I do. When you’re out there, I’m still the same… if you want to call me the ‘asshole,’ whatever you want to call it… it’s good. You said ‘jerk,’ so that’s pretty close.”

Tony Kanaan, who finished third and raced against Montoya in those 1999 and 2000 CART seasons – and actually won his first race against JPM at Michigan International Speedway in 1999 – said age has mellowed JPM, but hasn’t affected his driving.

“Let’s not call him old because I’m older than him,” said Kanaan, who turned 40 in December, while Montoya turns 40 in September 2015.

“Honestly, what I like about him, I don’t think he changes his personality. But we all grow up. We have kids. I think we kind of change a little bit in a way.

“So, yes, seeing Juan celebrating with the fans the way he did today, I can assure that wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago. But that was Juan back then. I think you go through experiences in life to learn.

“I can still see the old Juan sometimes on him, which it’s great to see. Juan is a good guy to have beside you, not against you. That’s the way I put it. That’s still there.”

As for Montoya behind the wheel, he reflected on how far he’s come back in IndyCar from 12 months ago. Although his trademark car control was there, he didn’t have the outright pace this race in 2014 – he qualified 18th and finished 15th.

“It’s exciting. Last year was very disappointing,” Montoya said. “It was tough not only here but generally on the street courses. I’m a guy that always excelled at street courses everywhere I raced. To come here and have a year with really bad street course racing, it was pretty tough. I was never happy with the car.

“You know, with my engineers, we decided to go in a completely different way the than the other guys. It paid off. My pace on black tires was pretty, pretty good.”

Montoya said it was his stint on the blacks that won him the race, but he said he still has more to learn on the red alternate tires.

“I mean, I still feel I didn’t do a good enough job in qualifying,” said Montoya, who qualified fourth. “I felt I left a lot out there. I don’t know. It’s a building process.

“But I’ll tell you, I was amazed how quick we were today, especially on black tires. I mean, I had as good of pace as the reds, but more consistent. That was pretty exciting.”

What’s the scary part for the rest of the field?

If Montoya is this good, this early, and still self-reflective enough to know what he still has to learn and improve upon, 2015 could be a long year for his rivals.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).