Is Montoya At A Crossroads?

When it comes to Juan Montoya and his future, there seems to be two schools of thought. I’ve read where some say that he is washed up and will be let go by Team Penske at the end of this season in order to make room to hire Josef Newgarden. Then there are those that say his demise is greatly exaggerated and that he has just had some bad luck recently.

I fall somewhere in the middle. First of all, I don’t think that Montoya is washed up by any stretch of the imagination. Nor do I think that he is going to be fired by Team Penske, no matter who is available. But to write off his mediocre results as nothing more than bad luck is also being just a bit naïve. I think there is more to it than that – a lot more.

To me, this is not an ability issue any more than it is a bad luck issue. This is just my observation as a fan and nothing more, but I think Montoya’s run of mostly so-so finishes boils down to desire. The Juan Montoya that made his mark as a champion hated to lose and didn’t mind showing it. He could be as surly as anyone in the paddock when things weren’t going well for him. He would only crack a smile when he was standing at the top of the podium.

The Juan Montoya of today crawls out of a crashed car, shrugs his shoulders and carries the demeanor that he couldn’t care less if he just finished last or not. His interview during the Indianapolis 500, just after he inexplicably crashed in a single car accident sounded like a driver who was fairly happy that he had just gotten a solid fourth place finish – not someone who had just guaranteed himself a last-place finish in a double-points paying race.

To put it bluntly, Juan Montoya is now sounding like a driver who doesn’t really care. If that’s really the case, then that’s a shame.

Some will bristle at that notion, while others might get downright hostile. As I said, this is strictly my observation from what I see in television interviews.

How else do you explain his decline in performance? Last season, from the season opener through the Month of May; Montoya had an average finish of 4.5. After winning the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career, Montoya’s average finishing position was 8.3 for the remainder of the 2015 season. This season, his average finishing position is 10.0 – and that’s counting his season-opening win at St. Petersburg.

Montoya’s defenders will say that he has seven Top-Ten finishes in nine races this season. His detractors will point out that only four of the nine were Top-Five finishes.

But his detractors will tell you that Montoya’s skills have eroded. Look at some of the drives he has had this season and that will tell you that that is not the case. But then there are the head-scratching moments like Indianapolis and Race Two in Detroit where Montoya crashes and seems to imply that it’s not that big a deal that makes one wonder just what is going on with the Colombian driver.

It’s understandable if his desire has diminished. One would think that winning the Indianapolis 500 would do that for any driver – especially winning it a second time. I also have to think that losing the 2015 IndyCar championship the way he did might tend to thwart his desire. To lead a championship from the first race all through the season in to race morning of the season-finale, only to see it slip away in the waning laps of the final race – that would be a tough pill for anyone to swallow.

Many people much smarter than I am predicted a 2016 slump for Montoya before the season started. I chuckled when he seemingly proved them all wrong by winning the season-opening race, just as he did last year. His ninth place finish in the second race at Phoenix did not seem as good as his fifth at NOLA in the last year’s second race, but it’s even more impressive when you realize he battled back from suffering a cut tire at Phoenix. He followed Phoenix with a fourth at Long Beach and a fifth at Barber. But he had a forgettable eighth place finish in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the disaster in the “500”. He had a good run in the first Detroit race, when he finished third, but laid an egg the second day when he crashed and finished twentieth.

I was questioned for my assessment of Montoya’s race at Road America, where he finished seventh after starting fourteenth on the grid. Yes he advanced seven spots, but four of the five that encountered problems and were at least one lap down, all started in front of Montoya.

So is Montoya having a dismal season? It depends on your perspective. He is currently ninth in points. Many drivers would love to be in ninth place just past the halfway point in the season. However, Montoya’s teammate, Will Power, missed the season-opening race that Montoya won – yet Power is third in the championship, trailing only his other two Penske teammates; Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud. For a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former CART champion who led last year’s championship most of the way – you would think that Montoya would be going nuts about now. Instead, he seems content that all is well. As far as his job security, it probably is.

We are all speculating about what might happen next year, because none of us really know. That’s what makes writing a blog so enjoyable. It starts conversations. My guess is about as good as anyone’s – and it is just that, a guess.

But that guess is that Juan Montoya has already decided that this year will be his last in open-wheel racing. He will be forty-one in September. He has a beautiful wife and three young children. He purportedly has more money than he knows what to do with. According to Curt Cavin, his home in Miami makes every other driver’s home look modest – and we’ve seen some of the lavish homes of other drivers.

He has won in every form of racing he has attempted. He won the CART championship as a rookie. He won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He won in Formula One as a rookie and seven Formula One races along with thirteen F1 poles in five and a half seasons. He won twice in Sprint Cup, before returning to open-wheel and winning five races in the Verizon IndyCar Series along with his second Indianapolis 500 victory in 2015. What is left for Juan Montoya to do to validate his racing career?

Again, this is purely conjecture on my part – but I’m wondering if Montoya started thinking about a life after racing when he lost control and crashed in this year’s Indianapolis 500; especially after the way he lost the 2015 IndyCar championship to Scott Dixon in the last race of the season. If I were his age and at that point in my career, I certainly know I would.

You also can’t help but wonder how last year’s race at Pocono has affected him. If I had three young children and looked at the family of Justin Wilson suddenly deprived of their father being in their lives; it would certainly make me re-evaluate things.

No one has whispered anything to me in confidence, nor did I hear any murmurings in the media center or in the paddock at Road America. These meanderings are simply from a gut feeling I’ve gotten from watching the exact same televised interviews that you have. Perhaps his air of contentment is because he is at peace with himself, for once. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines or I’m looking for something that’s simply not there. But I don’t think so. My gut feelings are usually pretty accurate.

For the last few weeks, I’ve heard Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on Trackside speculate whether Helio Castroneves or Tony Kanaan will be with their respective teams in 2017. I’m thinking they both will be. My guess is that the one missing veteran on the grid in 2017 will be Juan Montoya – but by his own choice. My opinion is that he is definitely at a crossroads in his career and his life. The decision will be his, but I suspect he hangs up his helmet after this season. For IndyCar’s sake, let’s hope I’m wrong.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “Is Montoya At A Crossroads?”

  1. madtad1 Says:

    George, I generally agree with you here, except about last year’s championship. I think JPM threw that away. It was his to lose and he managed to do it in fine fashion.

    Once he go his “insurmountable” lead, he just coasted and stopped really trying, even after it was obvious that Dixon was getting closer and closer, JPM just phoned it in. Then, after he lost it in the last race of the season, had the nerve to complain because it was a double points race.

    Pagenaud got in a very subtle dig/insult during a post race interview the other week when he was asked if he was going to back off a little now that he had a good lead. He looked at the interviewer like they were crazy and said, [French accent on] “Non! I will fight for every point! After all, we saw how well that worked last year…” Mike drop.

    On the other hand, I’m not totally sure about JPM totally giving up either, because he’s been giving some totally petulant, vintage Marco Andretti style whiny interviews when things didn’t go his way in races: “Wah, Charlie Kimble raced me too hard and passed me too many times.” “Wah, my car was bad it wasn’t set up right.”

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    I may be biased because he’s far from my favorite driver, but what I think is he started the season ok, but when things didn’t go his way, because, well, he’s the Great Juan Pablo Montoya! (TM) he just started phoning it in because, well if he can’t be champion, why bother trying.

  2. I think I am ready for JPM, HCN and Tony Kanaan to hang it up. All 3 have had fine careers and I would love to see them do the Indy month in 1-offs but I think all 3 are really getting to the point where they should move on and focus on other things. It is especially sad seeing Kanaan not winning in one of the best rides out there.

  3. jesamynn Says:

    I agree with you 100%, George. I actually think that Montoya is looking forward to mentoring and helping his son Sebastian in the racing ranks. His attention seems to go more and more towards Sebastian’s kart races and he is nothing if not a very proud papa and devoted family man.

  4. The big decision is which car Josef Newgarden drives for Penske next year. The 3 or 2 Penske car?

  5. sejarzo Says:

    I think JPM’s gone by his own decision. Big question is now when HCN and TK do the same.

    As for Indy 500 one-offs, I’m thinking JPM is the least likely of the three to ever try that. HCN is (clearly?) the most likely to come back to go for his 4th win. If that’s the case, no room at the Penske inn for JPM, right?

  6. Time to pass the torch to the new generation. Would love to see HCN and TK in Indy one-offs, but would prefer to see their seats filled with younger drivers like Josef, Conor Daly, etc…

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I wouldn’t be shocked to see Montoya retire, but I would be surprised. At this point, I think he will be back next year in the same car with the same crew. I would be more apt to expect him to leave Indycar if there was an obvious destination for him in sports cars. I suspect he’s well-liked by Penske’s sponsors, so I don’t see him being fired.

    This season so far is an anomaly in Montoya’s Indycar/CART career, it is easily his least competitive to date, so that may be why we are seeing him give seemingly indifferent interviews that we haven’t seen before. Those who followed Montoya during his slog through NASCAR, however, probably saw some of the Montoya we’re seeing this year. It may just be how he is when things are going poorly.

  8. I think he is retiring. I watched the Road America race from turn 5 and Montoya missed the turn nearly every lap. He looked awful through the turn. He definitely seems not to care and seems to just be going through the motions.

  9. Yannick Says:

    Montoya’s current place in the points standings is indeed a surprise. After he had won the season opener at St. Pete, you wouldn’t have expected him to be 4th best out of 4 Team Penske cars. Yet, I believe this is all about the 4-car Team Penske dynamic: last year, when the 4th entry was added, there was a point during the season, onwards from which Simon Pagenaud who was the 4th placed of those Penske entries, seemingly couldn’t get a thing right. As the season drew to a close, Pagenaud publicly confessed that his #22 had basically become the “test mule” of Team Penske, trying out risky strategies and different setup options under racing conditions for the benefit of the other 3 cars which were in the championship hunt.

    Now that the #2 of Montoya has got that role, it is no wonder that he sounds like he doesn’t really care. He may not exactly like being the test mule but he sure is enough of a team player to know that Pagenaud did it for him last season and now, he returns the favor.

    Taking all of this into account, it would be really interesting to find out when the cutoff point was and Penske decided that the #2 would fill the role the #22 had last season. It certainly must have been very close between the #2 the #12 who would become the “test mule” for this year, as that car’s driver Will Power had been way deep in the hole in the points standings after missing the season opener.

    Here’s hoping Montoya can make the most of this season, even in this supporter role.

  10. hey George. its time for juan to go sports car racing or retire. he got his second 500 win by luck. his ego that was huge any way and it only got bigger. my point made clear by his run in with power and his consent whinning about Kimball or anyone he feels gets in his way. as far as for beingreplaced by newgarden not as long as tim cindric is there . cindric has made clear his non favorable view of josef . time for juan to say goodbye and goodnight.

  11. George sort of touched on this, but I think the 9th place in points is a distortion of the massive amount of points that Juan missed out on at Indy. For instance, Juan scored 27 total points for the 500 and 500 qualifying, versus Carlos Munoz scoring 114, Josef Newgarden scoring 110 and Tony Kanaan scoring 80. If qualifying had only scored just the regular single point for a pole and 50 for a win, Juan would probably be 5th or so in points (I’m too lazy to actually figure it out), right in the same neighborhood as everybody not named “Pagenaud”.

    It’s possible that Juan is moving on by his own volition next year, but my guess is that he just knows that it’s not his year this year. Nobody is going to derail the Pagenaud Zephyr, when the only things that would seem to cause Simon to finish outside of the top-5 are technical problems (like he had at the 500 and at Road America, which cost him a probable top-5 and a top-3) or mis-timed yellows (like at Detroit #1, which cost him a probable top-3). Perhaps that means that he looks a little more unimpressed than normal (and, to be sure, “unimpressed” is basically his default state), but I think we’ll still see him in the mix for multiple race wins this season, and probably another season or two after this one.

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    A pretty early start to the “silly season” here today, but I’m sure Juan will appreciate all the career advice rendered.

  13. Any one else thinking crazy thoughts about Roger spending a few bucks and bringing in Jensen Button for a couple of seasons? What a great move for the sport that would be … remember how Mansell’s time in Indycar helped the series?

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