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Third Place
Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal

Montoya Appreciates Second Time Around

Indianapolis — Fifteen years ago, a young and aloof Colombian came to the Indianapolis 500, made quick work of the competition and moved on to other, more important projects.

Juan Pablo Montoya was quiet. Shy, probably. He seemed detached, maybe even unappreciative of the traditional American race that predated him by four generations.

Montoya returned last year every bit as different as you'd imagine of a man no longer 24.

He had seen the world as JPM 2.0, a Formula One driver who won that series' prestigious event, the Memorial Day weekend street fight in Monaco. Then as a NASCAR driver he had wrestled a school bus — that's how those stock cars felt — on high banks and bullrings and road courses.

Now, in this turn as an Indy-car driver that started last year, Montoya spoke his mind and flashed a wicked, smart-alecky smirk.

For the better part of two weeks this May, Montoya had talked of the strength of his car, of his confidence in himself and his team. Sunday he turned up the volume to 11.

As he approached the checkered flag on the 99th Indianapolis 500 with teammate Will Power safely behind, the graying 39-year-old let out a shriek the envy of any 12-year-old girl.

"I'll tell you the truth," Montoya said, flashing ear-to-ear pearly whites, "this one, when you have to work for it that hard, it's exciting. When you come on top of races like this....

"I know Will is probably disappointed right now he finished second, but in a couple months he's going to look back and say, 'Man, that was fun.'

"That was a hell of a race."

The man who had led a rookie-record 167 of 200 laps in his 2000 rout was out front for just nine this time over an engaging 3 hours.

Montoya flashed across the stripe 0.1046 of a second ahead of Power, the third-closest finish in Indy history, and set a record for the longest time between victories in the 500.

He also gave team owner Roger Penske a record-extending 16th victory and answered any lingering questions about why Team Penske would pull a frustrated veteran off the NASCAR scrap heap and give him another chance at the top level of American open-wheel racing.

"I'm glad I'm proving them right, that they made the right choice," said Montoya, who was fifth in his return to Indy in 2014.

"I'm loving racing right now, so it's great."

Before Montoya took his ceremonial lap in the pace car, his former boss, Chip Ganassi, approached and extended his hand. Ganassi brought Montoya into Indy-car racing in 1999 and back to the U.S. eight years later to try stock cars. Ganassi also chose not to re-sign Montoya at the end of 2013.

"Were still good friends," Montoya said. "He made a business decision. That's what it was.

"He brought his 'A' game. We did, as well."

Practice and qualifying portended a race between the powerful Penske and Ganassi Chevrolet teams, and that's how the afternoon transpired.

Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner for Ganassi, started on the pole and stayed out front an event-high 84 laps. Penske's Simon Pagenaud led 35, then Ganassi's Tony Kanaan 30 and Power 23.

Montoya — who had preached the importance of avoiding errors — took the least direct route. After qualifying a disappointing 15th, he got clipped during the first caution period, stopped for his team to replace some bodywork and restarted 30th. On a subsequent stop Montoya lost valuable time when he slid through his pit.

"There's a hundred ways to throw this away and there's only one way of winning it," Montoya said.

"Made a couple small mistakes early, but then we got our composure back and came back."

Kanaan took himself out on the 152nd lap, crashing when he miscalculated the effects of changes his team had made during a pit stop.

Pagenaud knocked his front wing askew by clipping Dixon. After repairs he raced back to 10th over the final 30 laps.

Dixon and Power, meanwhile, simply didn't have their cars handling properly when Montoya was at his strongest.

They swapped the lead among themselves six times in the final 15-lap shootout, with Montoya finally blasting by both on the 197th lap, Dixon in the third turn and Power on the main straightaway.

"I could draw up really quickly. It just came down to an imbalance," Power said. "I just didn't spend enough time in second place understanding what I need from the car.

"It's a difficult position, right? If it goes yellow, you win the race (so) I really fought hard to make sure I was leading all the time. Then again, if it's going to go green, you get a bit of experience behind, the way these cars draft."

Dixon suffered the same fate. He had to lift off the throttle because his car wouldn't turn. Charlie Kimball, a teammate who'd got to the front with the timing of his final pit stop, took third from Dixon.

Still, with 37 lead changes, this race was competitive enough that no one could be sure momentum wouldn't turn one more time.

It wasn't until the third turn of the last lap that Power conceded defeat and the final corner when Montoya would accept that victory — a truly special victory — was his.

"The first one was really cool, but it was weird because we came from Japan, (and) the day before running Nazareth (Pa.)," said Montoya, who was the champion of the rival CART series then. "We didn't do anything. We didn't experience it."

This time he was in town for more than two weeks, the race on the infield road course, posh dinners with sponsors, countless other commitments and Saturday's traditional parade.

"It's the proper experience of the month," Montoya said. "So when you go through everything, you start understanding what it means to win here."