Montoya’s Indianapolis 500 win adds another storied chapter to the Roger Penske-Chip Ganassi rivalry

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INDIANAPOLIS – The day before he and Roger Penske turned the Indianapolis 500 into a two-man chess match with nine 230-mph pawns, Chip Ganassi was asked about his primary rival’s depth.

How concerned was Ganassi now that Penske had four full-time championship-contending Chevrolets?

Standing on the yard of bricks where he’d won two Indianapolis 500s and a Brickyard 400 since Penske’s most recent Indy triumph, Ganassi flashed his Cheshire cat grin.

“You know,” he said. “If he wins the Indy 500, he’ll be the second guy in the club who wins Daytona and Indy in the same year.”

End of answer.

There was no need to leaf through a tome on racing history to know that Ganassi’s response was self-referential. In 2010, Ganassi won the Daytona 500 with Jamie McMurray and the Indy 500 with Dario Franchitti.

With Juan Pablo Montoya’s second Indy 500 win Sunday, the list now includes Penske, whose Sprint Cup team captured Daytona with Joey Logano three months ago.

“(Ganassi) wouldn’t let me in the club,” joked Penske, who has a record 16 wins in the Indy 500. “I finally got in. He sent me a note earlier, he said, ‘Welcome to the club.’  I said, ‘Thanks for the invite.’ ”

source: Getty Images
Getty Images

The statistical nugget embodied the theme of the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. Of the 200 laps around the 2.5-mile layout, 193 were led by either Penske or Ganassi drivers.

Ganassi led 124 laps between pole-sitter Scott Dixon (race-high 84), Tony Kanaan (30) and Charlie Kimball (10), and Penske paced 69 circuits between Simon Pagenaud (35), Will Power (23), Montoya (9) and Helio Castroneves (2).

Montoya is the common denominator between the powerhouse organizations, having won his first Indy 500 in 2000 with Ganassi. Underscoring the respect of the rivalry, Montoya was stopped before beginning the winner’s convertible victory lap for a hug and hearty congratulations from his former car owner (who also fielded a Sprint Cup car from 2007-13 before he joined Penske).

“We’re still good friends,” Montoya said of Ganassi. “He made a business decision. That’s what it was. He brought his ‘A’ game. We did, as well. I think the big difference is Roger has four bullets to win.  Honestly, he really does.  I think Chip has two, maybe, where we have four.”

Ganassi fields full-time Chevys for Dixon, Kanaan and Kimball but also entered Sebastian Saavedra and Sage Karam at Indy.

“I told Chip I knew if I ran four (cars), he’d run five,” Penske said with a laugh last week.

Ganassi and Penske, who have combined to win eight of the past nine championships, have the top four drivers (Montoya, Power, Dixon, Castroneves) in the points standings through six races.

Rossi remains “The Story” in INDYCAR in 2019

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly-timed move to race side-by-side with Herta going into Turn 1. By Turn 2 of the first lap of the race, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing missing from deeming Rossi’s race complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pits stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by one-full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished third three of the four times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the frontstraight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash just as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution. Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816-of-a-second behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he was never challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBC Sports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties like with Honda. Both him and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBC Sports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there, I think we’re getting there,” Andretti said. “We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that. After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500? In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races 10 years from now and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, that is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist. Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”