Juan Pablo Montoya stepped out of the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, took off his helmet, smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Eh, no big deal.”
He had not been in an Indy car since the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale at Sonoma Raceway in September, but Montoya’s quick run-through with Team Penske during an open test session today at Barber Motorsports Park wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Despite not driving an Indy car in more than six months, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner wound up fourth of 22 cars that tested.
“I feel like I drove the car yesterday,” Montoya said. “It’s kind of fun. I’ve been out of the car since September, but I feel fine. I have a new crew, new guys, new engineer. It’s working really well.”
The shakedown was in part to keep Montoya fresh as he prepares to race in May at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (May 13) and the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on the hallowed IMS oval. But it also served as the first five-car audition by Team Penske, which fields full-season cars for Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden.
While Pagenaud has taken over a Team Penske Chevrolet given the No. 1 for his 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, Montoya drove a car with the No. 22 used last year by Pagenaud, including his victory in the INDYCAR Grand Prix.
“If I do well in the Indy GP, I’m going to laugh so hard,” Montoya said. “Simon did so well last year there in the (No.) 22 car.”
Montoya, 41, won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and 2015, spent six years in Formula One and seven years in NASCAR. But when Team Penske hired Newgarden to drive the No. 2 Chevy in 2017, Montoya was moved to a part-time role. Today, he went about the first test without a problem.
“It’s more about us going through changes and understanding what I like and what I don’t and how big of a difference the changes make, so when we get to the Indy road course, we know what to do,” Montoya said. “It’s a good bonding experience for us. It’s fun. It’s nice to be out here. … There’s really no mystery.”
Montoya will team with engineer Raul Prados, who last worked for AJ Foyt Racing. Also working on Montoya’s pit stand is Ron Ruzewski, who worked with Montoya in the past at Team Penske. The No. 22 car crew combined to run a fast lap of 1 minute, 7.8406 seconds (122.051 mph) around the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park road course. It was less than a tenth of a second off the best overall lap clocked by Power.
Speculation has Montoya a front-runner for a projected Team Penske sports car operation, though no program has been confirmed to date. Until any such announcement is made, however, Montoya is focused on the two Verizon IndyCar Series races in May.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Montoya said of the speculation with a grin. “I never know anything. That’s above my pay grade.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!