Commentary

Indy unkind to former 500 winners

Updated: July 25, 2010, 7:04 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The 17th running of the Brickyard 400 started and ended with inglorious moments for a pair of former Indianapolis 500 winners.

Sam Hornish Jr., the 2006 Indy 500 champion, was involved in a seven-car accident on the first lap Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Juan Pablo Montoya threw away his chance at becoming the first Indianapolis 500/Brickyard 400 double winner with a late crash that also took out fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It was the second year in a row that Montoya dominated the Brickyard 400, only to have his day end in disappointment.

But while last year Montoya could blame NASCAR and a hair-splitting pit-road speed violation for his demise, this time, most of the responsibility was in the Colombian's own hands. Crew chief Brian Pattie's decision to take four tires at the final pit stop dropped the No. 42 car from the lead to seventh place, and after dropping to 10th place, a frustrated Montoya over-drove the Target Chevrolet and skidded into hard right-side contact with the Turn 2 wall on Lap 146 of 160.

[+] EnlargeJacques Villeneuve
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanNot much was expected of Jacques Villeneuve making his first NASCAR start at Indianapolis. The 1995 Indy 500 winner ended up being the best in breed with a 29th-place finish.

Any chance of continuing was eliminated a few seconds later when Earnhardt's No. 88 car smacked the back of the stricken 42.

Montoya didn't meet the press after his early departure from the race, but he told ESPN's Jamie Little that he apologized to his crew and took full responsibility for the accident that took them out.

Pattie was the one to take the blame publicly, telling reporters, "Bad call. Crew chief error. We should have taken two tires."

But they didn't, and when the four-tire stop dropped Montoya into the pack after he led a race-high 86 laps, it almost seemed as though the pressure that Indianapolis is famous for finally got to the fiery Colombian. From his first few laps as an Indy 500 rookie in 2000, he had attacked the famous track with a cavalier insouciance that clearly irritated dedicated Indianapolis Motor Speedway lovers.

Montoya crushed the Indy Racing League field in his only Indy 500 appearance, winning that 2000 race with comical ease for a 24-year-old who had competed in barely a dozen oval races in his career. His Indianapolis mojo didn't carry over to the IMS road course in six starts in the Formula One United States Grand Prix, but he was instantly competitive back on the 2.5-mile oval when his career took him into NASCAR, posting a second-place finish in his initial Brickyard 400 appearance in 2008.

Last year JPM was magic at Indy, only for that disputed pit-lane speed violation to wipe out a hard day's work. Montoya entered this year's Brickyard as a strong favorite and his performance in the first 140 laps of the race certainly met expectations.

"Honestly, when Juan was leading and I was second, I'm a big believer in fate and that was how it was meant to be," said Montoya's victorious Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray. "I won Daytona, Dario won the [Indy] 500 and I just figured this was his day.

"I thought Juan was going to win this one."

Added McMurray: "He obviously had the dominant car today and it's horrible the luck that team has been having."

Jamie McMurray I thought Juan was going to win this one. ... He obviously had the dominant car today and it's horrible the luck that team has been having.

-- Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray

At the other end of the spectrum, Hornish continues to struggle in what is now his third full season of racing stock cars at the Sprint Cup level. He's 29th in the Sprint Cup points standings and with sponsor Mobil 1 pulling its support from the No. 77 team at the end of the season, his future with Penske Racing is anything but secure.

He didn't do his cause any favors with his early accident Sunday, even though Kyle Busch basically took the blame.

"I just lost it, I guess," Busch said. "It just went around."

"I was just trying to let things sort out at the start when the [No.] 18 got loose," Hornish said. "I went underneath him -- no point driving behind him -- and I'm not sure if he clipped us or got into somebody else, but I got clipped in the right rear. I tried to keep it from spinning out, but just needed 12 inches to keep it off the wall.

"It sucks," he added. "We work so hard and looked forward to racing here, and we don't make it half a lap before trouble finds us."

The misfortunes suffered by Hornish and Montoya opened the door for ex-CART and F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve to come home as the best-finishing former Indianapolis 500 winner. The 1995 Indy 500 victor turned in a low-key run to 29th place in the Braun Racing Toyota as part of his continuing effort to launch a NASCAR career.

"That was so much fun," Villeneuve said. "It was very stressful because we came here without any practice and the team not knowing the car or the track, and me not being in a Cup car for over two years.

"It was a big question mark, but that's how I like it -- when it's tough. We kept fixing the car during the race and by the end, the car was running really strong."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.