Montoya the man to beat ... again
INDIANAPOLIS -- If Juan Pablo Montoya dominates Sunday's Brickyard 400 like he did in 2009 (and he should) and loses over a nitpicky penalty like he did last year (and he could), then he'll attain a record unique in a century of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He'll be the first driver to be robbed in consecutive years.
Montoya is on the pole with a Saturday qualifying speed of 182.278 mph, after being fastest in both of Friday's practice sessions.
So he's all set for a romp a la '09, when he led 116 of the 200 laps before NASCAR officials put him at the back of the field for speeding on pit road, a charge he still denies.
"It sucked what happened, and in my eyes I still don't think I did anything wrong," Montoya said to a group of reporters Friday. "It sucks we didn't take the trophy home, but in my mind I think anybody that is in [his] team knows that we had the fastest car and we had the pace to win the race. I think that counts for a lot."
If he can eliminate any errors from his own pit stops -- and therefore give the NASCAR tower no chance to nail him -- Montoya could score as convincing a win as he did in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.
But he hasn't been practicing pit stops this weekend. No need to, he said. It's a matter of being more careful with the RPM-to-gear measure that drivers use in lieu of speedometers in pit stops. There's no gauge for, say, 50 mph except, say, 4,000 RPM on the tachometer in second gear.
"We looked at it, we understand what happened," he said of last year's speeding ticket. "I think we were just too close to the limit. Just back it down a little bit and move on."
So the key, as Montoya repeated instructions from team owner Chip Ganassi, is to "do everything right and see what happens."
A win would underscore Montoya's position as the most versatile driver ever at this racetrack. He was the first to compete in NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One races here. He was the only one until Jacques Villeneuve qualified 41st for the 400 on Saturday. Villeneuve won the 1995 Indy 500 and the 1997 F1 world championship, but was never competitive in F1's U.S. Grand Prix.
Montoya didn't win in F1 here either, but had his electrifying moments in the U.S. Grand Prix, leading laps with his all-out style before yielding to the might of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
Nowhere have those three disciplines been more different than here. The big, clumsy NASCAR cars slip and slide like a herd of buffalo, on a track that is still maintained with open-wheel cars with half the weight in mind. And the F1 race was run mostly on the infield road course, utilizing only one corner of the historic rectangular "oval" track.
Only one other driver ever to appear here was as versatile as Montoya. And Mario Andretti, though he won in stock cars and captured an F1 world championship, never had a chance to compete in the NASCAR race or the Grand Prix at Indy.
"Most of the time it seems that when I've been here, I've run well," Montoya said. "In the Cup series I run well, in Formula One we ran well and in the Indys I did pretty well when I came here."
Why is that? For a decade, Montoya has been considered as scientific a driver as there is at working with a car, any car, pushing it closer to the edge of control, going over that edge without disaster and then dialing back just a touch to put it right on the edge consistently.
And that's why Montoya is as quick in stock cars, relatively speaking, as he was in open-wheel.
For Montoya's team owner, Ganassi, this is a chance to reach a mark hardly anyone had considered possible before: winning the Daytona 500 (Jamie McMurray in February), the Indy 500 (Dario Franchitti in May) and the Brickyard 400 in the same year. But to reach that mark Ganassi will need Montoya to beat Jimmie Johnson, the man starting beside him, who'll be gunning for his third Brickyard 400 win in a row.
McMurray, who'll start fourth, could fly wingman to Montoya and double Ganassi's chances to win here.
Their biggest stumbling blocks today are Johnson and his clockwork 48 team and the NASCAR speed sensors.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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THE BRICKYARD 400
2010 marks the 17th running of the Brickyard 400 at the grand old racetrack -- Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Jamie McMurray came through with the right pit strategy -- a two-tire pit stop in the closing laps -- and some solid driving to win the race and give team owner Chip Ganassi a piece of history, with victories in the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season.