IndyCar 2016 driver review: Juan Pablo Montoya

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MotorSportsTalk looks through the Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, after the conclusion of the 2016 season.

Next up is Juan Pablo Montoya, who endured a frustrating 2016 season but who remains an incredibly attractive free agent yet to sort his 2017 plans.

Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2015: 2nd Place, 2 Wins, 0 Poles (started first twice via qualifying rainouts), 5 Podiums, 9 Top-5, 13 Top-10, 145 Laps Led, 6.4 Avg. Start, 6.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 8th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 123 Laps Led, 9.6 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish

Juan Pablo Montoya wins the “probably finished higher in points than he otherwise could have” award for 2016 on the heels of a podium in the double-points final race. It provided a nice bookend to an otherwise frustrating campaign that raised questions about his future because of the intervening 14 races in-between.

After losing the 2015 title at Sonoma in nearly the worst possible way, on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon, Montoya bounced back nicely to win the season opener with a cagey move on Simon Pagenaud to pull off an encore at St. Petersburg. And the following four races were still good – a last-to-fifth drive at Barber was arguably one of the drives of the year – and he entered the Indianapolis 500 third in points.

And then, the wheels fell off. The rare first-to-worst in back-to-back years at Indianapolis occurred when he crashed coming off Turn 2, capping a month of frustration when he lost a would-be good qualifying run to a plastic bag hitting his car. A potential win at Detroit went begging in race one, followed by an abnormal accident in race two. His battle with Josef Newgarden at Road America was intense as he came out on top… but it was for seventh. An engine failure at Iowa and a mistimed pit stop at Toronto cost what were two more potential top-fives and set off a spate of stories questioning whether JPM still “had it” – even though he did.

There was another crash in practice at Pocono that then led to a “Frankencar” being assembled for qualifying. Several more underwhelming results brought into question his seat at Team Penske for 2017, but third at Sonoma was enough to vault him back to eighth in the standings from 14th place after Watkins Glen.

In truth, Montoya’s year was never as bad as many made it out to be. The luck he frequently had in 2015 was nowhere to be found this year. He still raced hard and mixed it up on track, showing that same trademark ability that has lasted the span of his career. Qualifying was probably his weakest point; a 9.6 grid average was never bad but was always going to be compared, negatively, to Simon Pagenaud at 3.8, Helio Castroneves at 4.2 and Will Power at 5.7. Four spots doesn’t seem like a lot to make up, but four extra spots at the front of the field don’t come easy.

Montoya’s confident he’ll be in IndyCar in 2017 but where remains a question mark, following news Josef Newgarden will take over his full-time seat at Team Penske. Montoya has an Indianapolis 500 seat there if he wants it, but that’s likely not his first choice. In a lower pressure environment, he could thrive once again, and he’ll be motivated as hell to return to championship contention. He doesn’t need the money, but I’m sure he does want to showcase that he still remains one of his generation’s best – at 41 years of age and counting.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)