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.