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Montoya heats up for Penske as IndyCar hits Pocono PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, July 05, 2014 8:00 PM

Associated Press

 

LONG POND, Pa. — Juan Pablo Montoya has been sprayed with champagne, doused with milk and feted with confetti.

But he never expected to find himself buried under a potato chip shower courtesy of teammate Helio Castroneves.

Unable to contain his patriotic fervor after his native Brazil scored a World Cup goal, Castroneves sprung from his seat and dumped a bowl of chips all over Montoya. Montoya seemed slightly irked at the mess and dusted the crumbs off the Colombian jersey he wore at IndyCar's soccer watch party.

"Helio's the kind of guy that likes the drama," Montoya said, smiling.

Montoya had no use for another chip — after all, there's a reason he signed with Roger Penske — but the secret snack attack was just a minor annoyance in a major successful stretch for the former Indianapolis 500 champion in his open wheel return.

In the true IndyCar crunch time, Montoya's adjustment to the car after an uneven 7-year stint in NASCAR may be over. After only two top 10s in his first seven starts, Montoya reeled off a third, second and seventh in his past three.

And because of two races a year on the tri-oval track for NASCAR, no driver will know the Pocono Raceway course as well as he does in today's race.

Once a brash and fearless driver, Montoya is starting to feel like his old self — and that could spell bad news for the rest of the field down the stretch.

"I'm getting more cocky," Montoya said.

He flashed some serious speed Saturday at Pocono when he turned a track-record lap of 223.920 mph and posted a 2-lap average of 223.871 to win his first pole of the season.

Montoya said he now has a better understanding of how to make the car do what he wants. With each day, his speed improves, his confidence swells and he believes he's now on the same pace as Team Penske teammates Will Power and Castroneves.

"It's fun because I feel it starting to click," Montoya said. "The more it starts to click, the more confident you get in the car, the more you push it."

Montoya is making his championship push at the right time with eight races left in the season, including some that boast double points.

Montoya has some familiar faces to catch in his pursuit of a championship: Power and Castroneves are 1-2 in the standings. Montoya is fifth and rising fast, a Pocono win would net him 100 points in the 500-miler and would stamp him a serious player in the championship hunt.

All three drivers insisted it's not awkward chasing each other for the championship.

"At the end of the day, we accomplish our goal, which is give the championship to Roger," Castroneves said.

That's one reason Montoya signed with Penske. He wanted a competitive ride again after lackluster results driving for Chip Ganassi in NASCAR. He knew his open wheel return would have a learning curve: Montoya last ran in CART in 2000, then left Formula One midway through the 2006 season for NASCAR.

Even if he can't run down Power and Castroneves, Montoya proved of late he's again a credible threat to win.

"I'd look at it in the beginning and I was like 12th or 14th in points and I was like, 'I don't really want to look at this. This is kind of embarrassing'," he explained. "I think where experience pays off is, you don't put yourself in bad positions and you finish more races."

He wanted the hot streak to keep rolling at Pocono.

Because of the differences in stock cars vs. Indy cars, Montoya said there would be little advantage to his familiarity with the 2 1/2-mile track. He should hope for different results, too. Montoya had only one top-five finish in 14 career NASCAR races at Pocono.

"I never doubted Juan Pablo," Castroneves said.

Montoya doubted himself just a bit after a sluggish start.

"You're not comfortable, you're not confident," he said. "Now, I can outbrake anybody. I can get there and I know I can throw the car in and I'm still going to stop. That confidence level has gone up a long way. I'm starting to pick it back up. It wasn't going to happen overnight. You've got to go racing to really understand."

Carlos Huertas, Montoya and Carlos Munoz were 1-2-3 last weekend at the Grand Prix of Houston for the first all-Colombian podium in IndyCar history. While national pride had Montoya rooting for Columbia in Friday's World Cup loss, he just shrugged when it was over.

"I'm not a soccer fan," he explained.

Montoya would rather put his focus on trying to blister the field, rather than worry about the one on his right hand. Montoya held out his hand to show the circular mark that remained from the bubble that formed about 15 laps into the second race at Houston. He tweeted a picture of the injury Sunday with the caption, "Ouchhh!!!"

It was a small price to pay for the fun he's having again in IndyCar.

And he certainly doesn't miss NASCAR, even as the series zips on this weekend on at Daytona.

"I watched Nationwide," Montoya added. "I feel asleep."

Carlos Munoz joins Montoya and Will Power on the front row.

Montoya won a Pocono pole in NASCAR in August 2012.

Takuma Sato, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe are on the second row.

Gabby Chaves wins Indy Lights race at Pocono: Gabby Chaves won the Indy Lights race at Pocono Raceway on Saturday for his season-high fourth victory of the year.

Zach Veach won the pole and finished second. Jack Harvey was third, followed by Matthew Brabham and Juan Pablo Garcia.

The IndyCar Series feeder system was racing for the first time since May in Indianapolis.

Ken Schrader wins ARCA pole at Winchester

WINCHESTER, Ind. — Former NASCAR driver Ken Schrader won the pole Saturday for the ARCA Racing Series event today at Winchester Speedway.

The 59-year-old Schrader had a track-record lap at 113.737 mph on the half-mile track that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

"It's a fast track," Schrader said. "Anytime a track stays around for 100 years, it must be doing something right."

Schrader also was the fastest in both practice sessions, taking a short nap after the opening practice.

"I took that nap and was kind of re-energized," Schrader added. "It took me a while to get going in the second practice session, though. I think I forgot everything I learned from the first session."

He has 17 career ARCA victories and 18 series poles.

Brandon Jones will start second in his ARCA debut. Anderson Bowen qualified third, followed by John Wes Townley and Mason Mitchell. Points leader Grant Enfinger will start seventh.

NASCAR to mull qualifying changes at plate races

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — That strange qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway might end up being a one-time thing.

NASCAR executive Robin Pemberton said rules could be tweaked to prevent teams from trying to scheme ways to post the fastest laps during the three knockout stages.

"I think we'll learn from all of this moving forward and continue to talk and see if there's anything that we need to look at to try to make things better for the fans and better for the competitors," said Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "All in all, it's been a great year for qualifying and it's been a great year for a lot of different rule changes that we put into play this year.

"We'll sit down and we'll talk about some of these things toward the latter stages of the year and see what we may rub on and do a little changing or some things like that."

NASCAR's new qualifying rules package was used for the first time at Daytona in the Sprint Cup Series on Friday and it produced some head-scratching moments as groups of cars slowed to a crawl around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway. The small packs — most of them formed by teammates — were hoping to pull behind bigger groups and draft behind them to produce fast laps. But no one was eager to lead the way, especially not in a huge cluster of cars.

Driver reaction was mostly negative, with pole-sitter David Gilliland dubbing it "uncontrolled chaos" and defending Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. calling it "a mess" and "the funniest thing I've ever seen."

It was relatively risky, too. Several cars turned down pit road to elude the disorder. But the most common concern was the speed differences, with some drafting partners creeping along while others ran full speed.

"It was really wild and it was pretty dangerous," driver Matt Kenseth said. "There's car doing 80 (mpg) and there were cars doing 200 and nobody wanted to go. Everybody wanted to be in the back of the pack and try to catch the front to get a (fast) lap, so it was pretty chaotic."

Similar strategies were used at NASCAR's other restrictor-plate track, Talladega, in May. But not all teams were up to speed with those ploys back then. Everyone was ready Friday.

NASCAR could conceivably change the qualifying rules before the Oct. 19 race at Talladega.

Earnhardt suggested NASCAR might shorten the segments, leaving teams with less time to play cat-and-mouse games, or switch to heat races.

"I don't know if you just ball it up and throw it in the trash yet, but heat races are always fun," Earnhardt said. "You can never go wrong with heat races. We got away from them for some reason but that's what they used to run in the 50s and 60s. ... I'm not sure they are the be-all, end-all answer for everything."

Pemberton said heat races were considered when NASCAR overhauled its qualifying format in January but ultimately not chosen because of their unpredictability.

"We didn't look at them as a bad idea," Pemberton added. "It just put teams in a position where they may not be able to compete based on accidents. We weigh those things. Heat races are exciting but when you're qualifying two hours or so before an event, you're putting yourself in a position where others may not be able to compete at a high level.

"I'm not saying that anything is ever off the table, though. We have this stack of ideas and paperwork that we keep going to and are constantly reviewing."

Josh Wise's fans look to unseat Earnhardt Jr.: Fans of Josh Wise now have Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 11-year reign as NASCAR's most popular driver directly in their sights.

Voting opened Saturday for the award, sponsored by Sprint and the National Motorsports Press Association, and there's no reason to believe Wise's tech savvy fan base won't be active participants.

Wise won the Sprint All-Star fan vote in May in an upset over Danica Patrick. His support comes from the Dogecoin community at online site Reddit, which also successfully mounted an online push to sponsor Wise's car at Talladega using the digital currency.

Voting runs until the day after the Nov. 16 season finale at Homestead and Wise's supporters have pledged to unseat Earnhardt.

Wise is in his third full season in the Sprint Cup Series and was ranked 36th in the standings headed into Saturday night's race at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt is a 2-time Daytona 500 winner and was ranked third going into Daytona, where he was trying to become the sixth driver in history to sweep the season at the famed track.

Voting is limited to one per person per email address per day and the website requires registration. Fans who share their votes on Facebook or Twitter get their votes doubled. If shared on both, their votes get tripled.

Eligible drivers must have declared for the Sprint Cup championship and entered all points races before Saturday night. The winner of the award receives a trophy and a $10,000 donation will be made this year to the winning driver's charity of choice.

Barney Hall stepping down as lead NASCAR announcer: Barney Hall, the voice of NASCAR as the lead announcer for Motor Racing Network, was scheduled to call his final event Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Hall has been calling races for more than 50 years and he will transition into a different role with MRN.

NASCAR President Mike Helton announced that Saturday night would be the final race in the booth for the 82-year-old in the pre-race driver meeting. The drivers and crew chiefs gave him a standing ovation after Helton noted his dedication to NASCAR.

"He was the first person in this industry who taught me about NASCAR, listening to him through the radio," Helton added. "For years and years, he has spoke to millions of fans — made millions of individuals into fans of our sport. Thank you for all you've done for us personally but in particular, for all of you've done to build the character of NASCAR."

Hall, along with Ken Squier, is part of NASCAR's Squier-Hall Award, which was created in 2012 to honor the contributions of media to the success of the sport.

In his new role for MRN, Hall will do features about race tracks, races and drivers.

 

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