CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With a chance to start over and maybe drive in any series he wanted, Juan Pablo Montoya thought long and hard about what mattered most at this stage of his career.
The answer was simple: Winning.
So when a team owner synonymous with winning put an offer in front of him, Montoya snapped up the opportunity. He’ll leave NASCAR behind for a return to open-wheel to drive for Roger Penske – the IndyCar Series rival of Montoya’s longtime boss, Chip Ganassi.
“He’s very excited for me,” Montoya said Monday after texting with Ganassi, who is in Europe. “Something that we have with Chip is that we’re very good friends. We have a lot of respect for each other. He had to make a decision this year to go in a different direction. I had to do the same thing.”
Ganassi decided in August not to bring Montoya back next year to his NASCAR program. It put the Colombian on the free agent market, and even though Ganassi had said he’d not ruled out using Montoya in his other programs, Montoya considered everything.
He spoke with Michael Andretti about an IndyCar ride, and Furniture Row Racing about replacing Kurt Busch at the end of the NASCAR season. There were calls to Europe, and a new rumor about a possible test with Lotus in Formula One.
Then came discussions with Penske and all bets were off with the other teams.
Montoya will team next season with current IndyCar points leader Helio Castroneves and Will Power while driving for Penske, winner of 15 Indianapolis 500s. He could also drive in some NASCAR races as part of the deal.
“My No. 1 choice was going to be in a winning car. I really wanted to be in a winning car,” he said. “It came down to I wanted to race for Roger. In a way it’s always been one of my dreams to be able to be part of his organization. Being here, it’s unbelievable. I’m so excited. I’m like a 5-year-old kid right now.”
Montoya won the 1999 CART title, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and 11 races driving open-wheel for Ganassi. He then moved to Formula One, where he had seven wins and 30 podiums, before reuniting with Ganassi again in 2006 to compete in NASCAR.
But results in NASCAR have been sporadic. Montoya has just two wins in 244 career starts and his best season finish was eighth in 2009. He’s 20th in the standings this season.
With the hiring, Montoya is now stuck in the middle of a spat between Penske and Ganassi drivers over in IndyCar.
Ganassi driver Dixon was penalized in Sonoma when his car made contact with a crew member for Power, Castroneves’ teammate, on the final pit stop. IndyCar race director Beaux Barfield said Dixon had driven into the Penske Racing work space, but Dixon alleged the crew member walked into his car.
Montoya said he’ll try to stay out of the fray.
“I think I’m going to have a little white flag, I’m going to be very neutral there,” Montoya said. “For one side, I’m still committed with Chip and the NASCAR program for the next nine races. But I think it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be like mixed emotions watching the last few IndyCar races.”