By John Kekis
AP Sports Writer
LONG POND, Pa. — Juan Pablo Montoya finds himself in a different place as the IndyCar Series returns to Pocono Raceway. With four races left in the season, he’s not the man to beat.
Heading into Sunday’s race at Pocono, the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of Justin Wilson after a freak accident at the 2.5-mile track, Montoya sits 12th in the standings, the last of Roger Penske’s four cars. The other three — Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Helio Castroneves — are 1-2-3, with Pagenaud and Power separated by just 58 points and Josef Newgarden 120 points behind Pagenaud in fourth.
“The gap to a different competitor from a different team is bigger (than last year). It might just come down to Simon and Will,” Montoya said. “I think we’ll be much better prepared going into the last race to make sure we all work together, and so we can win the championship as a team. We’ll see what happens.”
A year ago, Montoya led in points much of the season before losing the series title in the season finale to Scott Dixon, unable to make one last pass for position on the final lap to secure the championship. Dixon dominated a race worth double points to tie Montoya and was declared the champion, because he had one more victory than the hard-driving Colombian.
“It sucks, but it is what it is. Move on, you know?” Montoya said.
Montoya seemed poised to make amends for his heartbreaking title loss when the new season began. He started on the second row and won the season opener at St. Petersburg. He was still third in the standings after two top-fives in the ensuing four races, then watched his season begin to unravel at the Indianapolis 500. Montoya lost control of his car on lap 64, crashed into the wall and finished last in a race he had won the previous year for the second time.
He rebounded with a third-place finish at Belle Isle but has since had 20th-place finishes in the second race at Belle Isle, Iowa and Toronto, along with an 11th at Mid-Ohio to fall out of contention. He had contact at Belle Isle, mechanical problems at Iowa with his Chevrolet and strategy bit him at Toronto and Mid-Ohio.
“It’s been tough, because we’ve had cars fast enough to be there,” he said. “Race pace is really, really good. I’m not really struggling. We’ve been making the wrong calls. At Iowa I was the fastest team car. When you go every week and you’re competitive and things just go wrong, there’s nothing you can do.”
Montoya returned to IndyCar two years ago after a 14-year stint in NASCAR, won at Pocono, and finished fourth in the championship. His contract with Penske is up after the season, and he said he is looking at three options, trying to decide the best fit for him personally.
“They’re going to wait until after the season to make a decision. We’ll see what happens,” Montoya said of Penske. “I think I’ve done a really good job. I won the Indy 500 for them last year. They hadn’t won it since ‘09. I nearly won the championship, but as a team we didn’t execute well enough.
“Personally, I think we have the potential to keep going doing nice things. This year, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”
Barring a miracle, history isn’t likely to follow recent form in the open-wheel series. Including Pagenaud this season, a driver from Team Penske has led the championship with four races to go four times in the past six years — Power (2010), Castroneves (2013 and 2014), and Montoya — and none won the title that season.