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.

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”