LONG POND — Success never came in a stock car at Pocono Raceway for Juan Pablo Montoya. Perhaps 500 miles in an open-wheel car starting at 1 p.m. today will be different.
The former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver captured the pole Saturday for the Pocono IndyCar 500, becoming the first driver in track history to start first in a NASCAR and open-wheel race.
“It was a bit of a handful going through (turn) three,” Montoya said, “but it was good through one. The big thing here is if you can hold it wide open through one … because it’s all momentum.”
Montoya started from the pole in the August 2012 Sprint Cup race, but momentum was fleeting and he finished 20th in the rain-shortened event. His best finish in 14 Cup races at Pocono was a second in August 2009.
Montoya left NASCAR after last season and returned to open-wheel racing, where he won 14 poles and 10 races from 1999-2000 in the CART Series. However, the 38-year-old Columbian kept an eye on IndyCar, including last year’s race at Pocono.
“I watched last year’s race, saw how the race developed and everything went,” said Montoya, who had seven victories in Formula One from 2001-2006. “That’s all you can do — be as prepared as you can be and take it as it comes. That’s all you can really do. It seems I run really well on oval this year, so it’s fun. It’s good to have a good track position.”
Even with more track time than his competitors — albeit in a completely different style of racing — Montoya didn’t find success early Saturday. He was sixth fastest in the first practice and dropped to ninth in the second session in his Team Penske No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet.
But in qualifying, Montoya nailed it. His speed of 223.871 mph set a new track record. Will Power will start second and Carlos Munoz third. Scott Dixon, who won last year’s race after a 24-year absence of open-wheel racing at Pocono, qualified 19th.
“It was a pretty good run,” Power said. “I probably had too big of a lift in (turn) one on my first lap. Too much understeer. Juan ran a little more downforce. I knew if he ran flat, he’d be very tough to beat.”
Montoya’s return to IndyCar has been a mixed bag. He had just two top-five finishes in the first seven races, including a fifth in the Indianapolis 500. But he’s been strong in the last three, with a third at the Texas Motor Speedway oval followed by a second and a seventh in last weekend’s doubleheader at Houston’s street course.
“I still feel I’m lacking a little bit,” Montoya said. “I mean, I’m getting a lot better. I feel more comfortable in the car now. I need to be a little more proactive with the car, help the engineers a little more. I can tell them what the car is doing. But the more I learn, the more I can tell them what it’s doing. What we have to do to make the car go better.”
Eleven drivers in all eclipsed last year’s record pole speed of 221.273 set by Marco Andretti, who will start fifth today.
There was only one incident during qualfiying when Josef Newgarden slapped the outside wall exiting turn one.
“Felt like I lost all steering and it went right into the wall,” Newgarden said.
Jack Hawksworth crashed in nearly the same spot during the second practice. He didn’t attempt a qualifying effort.