SONOMA, Calif. — Juan Pablo Montoya’s candor can be compared to how the feisty Colombian drives Indy cars — fast and fearless.
When asked about the possibility of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner not returning to Team Penske next season, Montoya acknowledged the uncertainty of his future but expressed confidence in a resume that should keep him employed.
In other words, he doesn’t sound like he’s the least bit worried.
“They haven’t made a decision. I haven’t made a decision,” Montoya said after finishing third Sunday in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the race that brought down the curtain on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. “They’re probably looking at a lot of options. I’m looking at a lot of options.”
Make no mistake, he has them.
“I do actually, yeah, it’s good,” Montoya said.
As Montoya’s teammate, Simon Pagenaud, was about to celebrate the championship after winning at Sonoma Raceway, owner Roger Penske and president Tim Cindric said the team has plenty of time to make driver decisions. Three-time Indy 500 Helio Castroneves is also at the end of a contract.
“We haven’t made a decision yet and we said we’re not going to make a final decision on all of our drivers until after the season,” Penske said. “We’ve got probably the next four or five weeks to make a decision.”
Added Cindric: “We’ve got another 30 days or so to see how it sorts out. Let’s agree to wait until the end of the year and see what it looks like.”
Just minutes before Sunday’s race, NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported on the telecast that Montoya was convinced the season finale would be the driver’s final start for Team Penske. A few minutes after finishing third in the No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet, Montoya shrugged at Miller’s report, which suggested team owners Chip Ganassi, Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt were interested in the driver’s services.
“I don’t know,” Montoya said, sitting on a pit wall near his car. “We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”
He expects to have a full-time ride somewhere.
“Oh yeah, that’s the goal,” he said.
Rampant speculation has centered on where Josef Newgarden might land, if it’s t Penske, a return to Ed Carpenter Racing or elsewhere. As in the past, Cindric and Penske will confer on driver contracts.
“I don’t make any decisions without him,” Cindric said of his Hall of Fame boss, whose team celebrated its 50th anniversary in racing this year.
Rumors about Montoya’s possible 2017 availability have been circulating since July, so much so that repeated questions were eventually given a stock answer: “When I know, you’ll know,” the 1999 CART champion and 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series runner-up repeated.
After winning his second Indy 500 last year and tying Scott Dixon for the series title (but losing on a tiebreaker for wins in the season), Montoya’s 2016 started promisingly enough with his second consecutive win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
That turned out to be the high point in an otherwise frustrating year. Montoya repeatedly blamed most of his misfortune on bad luck. A third place at Sonoma duplicated his only other podium finish in the first Chevrolet Dual at Detroit race in June. He crashed out in last place, 33rd, at the Indy 500, where he had been so strong in three previous starts.
Because the 41-year-old driver has proven himself in INDYCAR, NASCAR and Formula One, it’s surprising to see him finish eighth in the points, especially after teammates Pagenaud, Will Power and Castroneves were 1-2-3.
“To be honest with you, if you look at all the tough things that happened this year, to actually finish where we did in the championship is pretty good,” Montoya said. “We just didn’t get a break this year.
“We struggled as a team at Indy, in traffic it just got out of my hands. I made a mistake in Detroit, too, on cold tires (crashing out of the second Dual in 20th). I was saying to my engineers, we put ourselves in such difficult positions that you’ve got to drive over your head to make something happen. When you start doing that, you start making mistakes. It’s just tough.”
Adversity eventually impacted aggressiveness. Montoya set his mind to just trying to finish races as strong as possible without taking unnecessary risks. Sonoma was an example of making the most out of what he had.
“I felt we needed to get a good result, so I didn’t want to do anything stupid,” he said. “I could have been more aggressive, but we probably would have finished in the same place.
“It was a fuel-mileage race. We did with what we had. The car wasn’t that good, even (in the pre-race warmup practice), it wasn’t good in race trim. We made a ton of changes from warmup to the race. And it was OK, but it wasn’t, ‘Oh my God, I had such a good car.’ No, we didn’t have a great car, but we made the most of it and had a podium finish, so I’ll take it. Congrats to Simon, he deserved it.”
As for what he deserves in the future, Montoya reiterated the belief he made Team Penske better and he should receive another contract.
“The championship was tough, but I had a win this year,” he said. “I won the Indy 500 last year and I should have won the championship last year. There’s no reason why not.”