LONG POND — One IndyCar victory won’t erase what was nine mostly frustrating seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
But for Juan Pablo Montoya on Sunday, those Cup years were put well behind him for an afternoon.
Montoya established himself early and benefited from some late-race problems by his top competition to win the Pocono IndyCar 500 in impressive fashion.
The race speed of 202.402 mph was the fastest in IndyCar history, topping the speed of 197.195 mph set at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in 2002.
“I want to thank Roger for believing in me,” Montoya said. “After how many years out of open wheel, he believed I could do it and here we are.”
That would be Roger Penske, who gave Montoya an open-wheel ride for the first time since 2000. It came after 254 Cup races produced just two victories, the last in 2010.
“It’s been a long road,” Montoya said. “It’s a lot harder than people realize. Driving open wheel is a lot different than what I’ve been driving for years.”
Penske teammate and second-place finisher Helio Castroneves seemed more excited than Montoya.
“What about Juan Montoya!” Castroneves said. “This guy is unbelievable! Coming back after 15 years and winning a race. He did a great job.”
Throughout the weekend, it was as if Montoya never left open-wheel racing, where he won 11 times in 1999 and 2000 in the IndyCar and CART series.
Montoya won the pole on Saturday and quickly established it was no fluke once the green flag dropped on Sunday.
Through the first 150 mundane laps of the 200-lap event, three drivers emerged as the favorites — Montoya, Will Power and Tony Kanaan. The trio exchanged the lead for the most part before a caution on lap 159 — the only of the race — led to some oddities.
The first came with 33 laps left. Montoya tried to pass Power for the lead in turn one, but tore off the left part of his front wing making the move.
“Just a little more understeer,” Montoya said of the damage assessment. “I had to do it. It was one of those moves where you do it or you do it. That was the win move and I had to do it.”
A few laps later, Power and Castroneves were battling down the front stretch. Castroneves tried to duck low on his Team Penske teammate. Power blocked that move and then made another quick left toward Castroneves. The second swerve resulted in a drive-through penalty and ended Power’s hopes of winning.
“I was heading that way,” Power said. “I was heading over and over and over. Umm, yeah. He’s my teammate. Another penalty, another drive-through, another opportunity lost.”
Castroneves didn’t seem overly annoyed at Power’s antics.
“That’s one thing about our team, Team Penske,” Castroneves said. “We race hard. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who makes the calls. We’re all pushing hard, fighting for the championship. In the end, it’s not my call.”
Kanaan’s problem was due to fuel mileage. He pitted on lap 161, surrendering the lead in the process. And unless there was another caution, Kanaan also surrendered any chance for a victory.
“When he pitted, I knew there was no way he was going to make it,” said Montoya, who made his final stop on lap 187. “There was no, no way. There was only two ways for him to make it. One, he had to run really slow and if he runs really slow we’ll get him. And if he runs a little bit hard, he’s going to run out of gas.
“They were planning on a caution. And if you get a caution with four or five laps to go, he wins the race.”
Once Kanaan’s low-fuel light came on with four laps left, victory was Montoya’s. Kanaan finished 11th.
“You got to be patient, you got to run hard because days like this if you do everything right the opportunity will come,” Montoya said.
Whether Montoya gets to defend his Pocono IndyCar 500 title next year remains to be scene. A story by the Associated Press earlier this week indicated that the raceway may opt out of its final year of a three-year contract with IndyCar.
Low ticket sales were cited as a problem. Sunday’s attendance looked less than last year’s estimate of 30,000-35,0000.
“I love this place. I’d love to come back here,” said third-place finisher Carlos Munoz.
“Everybody enjoyed it, everybody had fun,” Castroneves said. “I hope we come back.”