Montoya, rising

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You can say a lot of things about Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian IndyCar driver who won Sunday’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for Team Penske.  You can call him brash, you can call him mercurial, but mostly, you can call him a winner.

After taking the lead in the later stages of the race from teammate and defending series champion Will Power, Montoya held off the Australian with a sublime drive to claim victory in the season opener. It was the second win for Montoya since returning to American open wheel racing after forays into Formula One and NASCAR.  Montoya also joins a select group of drivers to have notched victories in CART and the IndyCar Series, albeit years apart.

In the days of Jim Clark and Graham Hill, it was something to be an “all-arounder”; a driver who was quick no matter what he was driving. Clark drove in F1, NASCAR, touring cars, and the Indianapolis 500. Montoya has shown speed in every type of car he has driven, earning wins in the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours of Daytona. He also has a NASCAR road course win under his belt. It is an impressive list, made all the more impressive by how few have done it.  Montoya has impressive car control, confidence in his abilities, and the good fortune to have driven for owners like Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, and Frank Williams.  Those men know talent when they see it.

With a win over Power in the first race of the season (and both Ganassi and Andretti mostly lost at sea), Montoya has made a clear declaration of intent. It should be an interesting summer inside Team Penske.

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IndyCar in the rear view mirror

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The IndyCar season closed last Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Although Tony Kanaan won the race, Will Power won his first IndyCar championship and proved his doubters wrong.  Penske teammates Power and Helio Castroneves (below) were a two-horse race for the title, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Simon Pagenaud a distant third.

Power had an up and down season, winning regularly but angering fans and fellow drivers with occasionally questionable driving tactics.  Penske is a five-star operation, giving each of its drivers an opportunity win the title.  For the second year in a row, Castroneves was unable to seal the deal. Juan Pablo Montoya returned to open wheel racing from NASCAR, and, while he didn’t contend for the championship, his speed was undiminished.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing had a slow start, something Scott Dixon acknowledged after he won at Sonoma.  Dixon targeted Ganassi’s sports car projects as drawing focus away from IndyCar at the beginning of the season. One can only guess what the team might have achieved with more focus.

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Power (below) was the focus of attention all weekend at Sonoma and again at Fontana. Power qualified on pole at Sonoma but spun during the race and finished 10th. Power has never been a strong oval driver, but this year, he put together a consistent string of finishes to claim an IndyCar title.

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Much was expected of Juan Pablo Montoya (below, with wife Connie, on the grid at Sonoma). For the most part, the Colombian delivered on his promise, showing no loss of speed or intensity after time spent in F1 and NASCAR.

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Pit stop action from Sebastian Saavedra.  Along with Montoya, Saavedra and Carlos Huertas formed an IndyCar Colombian Crew.

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Paoli wheel gun, used for IndyCar only (costs about $4,500).

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Carlos Munoz was an impressive rookie of the year.  Behind Munoz, Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth all showed promise,  but Munoz managed to finish fourth in his rookie Indy 500.

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For most of the year, Ryan Briscoe was outshone by teammates Kanaan and Dixon (and Charlie Kimball).

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Ed Carpenter stepped down from his driving duties on road courses, allowing Mike Conway to take over. At Sonoma, Conway lead almost 40 laps late in the race, thanks to a savvy fuel strategy and good luck.  Conway lost the lead on lap 83 and coasted to a halt just past the start/finish line. I spent those laps in Ed Carpenter’s pit, watching as the team bit its nails under pressure.

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Dixon won at Sonoma, but couldn’t repeat as series champion.

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