ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Juan Pablo Montoya took a job in IndyCar with Roger Penske because he wanted to win races again.
His history showed it wouldn’t be a problem.
His preseason testing results indicate it might not be so easy.
Montoya has ranked near the bottom of the speed sheets during all of his test sessions with Team Penske as he prepares for next month’s season opener at St. Petersburg after a seven-year absence from open wheel. Montoya last ran in CART in 2000, then left Formula One midway through the 2006 season for NASCAR.
Despite what the timing sheets show, Montoya said Tuesday he has been pleased with his progress and didn’t expect to get back into the car and drive it like he did 14 years ago.
“I feel like I’m not where I want to be yet with the car, but I feel we have come a long way,” he said. “Sometimes we’re really good, sometimes we’re average. The first Sebring test was horrible. I feel like Sonoma was pretty good.”
His speed has been fine, even though he’s one of the few drivers who have yet to test with the new 2014 Chevrolet engine, Montoya said. Where he has struggled has been in getting used to the Indy car and learning braking zones.
Compounding the problem is his preference to be conservative during test sessions: One mistake could cost him the entire day.
“If you try to be too greedy too early - let’s say we got to Sonoma and I tried really early to push really hard, throw the car off, you spend the rest of the day repairing the car, you don’t learn anything,” he said. “Laps, I think, are very important at this point. I’m leaving a lot on the table. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Montoya still has lofty goals for the season: He would like to win the Indianapolis 500 and be in contention for the series championship.
“It’s going to take time to win; how much time, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not expecting to go out the first time and win, to be honest. I have to understand strategies and everything.”
Three-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon isn’t ruling out Montoya as a credible threat this year. The two were pseudo teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon on the IndyCar side and Montoya in NASCAR, and drove together every year in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
“Juan I think we all know is a huge talent, and he’s won in everything he’s raced in, many different formulas,” Dixon said. “It’s a big change, for sure, coming from mostly oval racing, such a big car. But I think with the team and drivers he’s with, it will come along quickly. It’s just when it’s going to happen, whether it’s right out of the box or a few races.
“He’ll definitely be challenging for wins throughout the season.”
Working in Montoya’s favor is additional test days granted by IndyCar after Team Penske requested the track time from President of Competition Derrick Walker.
Walker called the extra track time a refresher for the 1999 CART champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner.
“When he first came on the horizon, the team asked, ‘Could we get some extra days to help give him time?’” Walker said. “We just looked at it and said, ‘It’s great to have him back, and really it’s about what goes on in the races.’ So we gave him a little extra to get tuned up. It’s not easy to step out of IndyCar, come back, familiarize yourself that well with it all.
“I think it’s all about the fans, helping him get back in the saddle.”
Montoya knows there are expectations on him to be good right away, and to dominate the series the way he did in 1999 and when he won the Indy 500.
He said he will be the only one to put pressure on himself.
“I don’t care what the outside thinks. I really don’t,” he said. “I put enough pressure on myself to perform and do whatever it takes to get it done. I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody else. You know me, I never really care what people think of me. I care what I think of me. I know when I do a good job and a bad job.”