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Associated Press
In 2000, Juan Pablo Montoya celebrated his victory in the only time he drove in the Indianapolis 500. After years in NASCAR, Montoya returns and is driving for Roger Penske.

Montoya returns in black

2000 winner has new team, new wardrobe

Juan Pablo Montoya puts on his balaclava before practicing for the Indianapolis 500.

– Ninety-eight years along, and still the place is too spry for you.

May comes around and you think you have a handle on this – you think you know what the Indianapolis 500 is, because you have the weight of all its history at your back – and still it dances away from you, laughing, showing you the jab and going upside your cranium with the hook.

You blink once, and, bam, suddenly qualifying has become a one-day event awkwardly stretched to cover two.

You let your eyes drift to the jab, and, wham, here’s Kurt Busch from NASCAR giving the 500 a whirl, and Jacques Villeneuve back again for the first time in two decades, and 2014 winner Tony Kanaan – what’s this? – driving Dario Franchitti’s car.

Franchitti, meanwhile, is in the broadcast booth. Ryan Briscoe’s not with Roger Penske anymore, he’s back with Penske’s great rival, Chip Ganassi. And over here, cradling a microphone, laughing and shrugging, turning the needle on the Captain himself …

Let’s talk about the greatest misdirection play of all: Juan Pablo Montoya’s wardrobe.

Black. The man is dressed in head-to-toe black, as if Johnny Cash kidnapped his soul and refused to give it back.

Or maybe that was just Roger Penske.

“Yeah, we had to change the whole outfit when he showed up,” Penske said this month.

“Everything,” Montoya concurred, chuckling.

And here is the real hook, the Joe Frazier hook, at Indy this May. Sure, it’s Montoya back in an IndyCar for the first time since he won the 500 in 2000 in his only crack at it. But it’s also Montoya out of the Target red he wore as a foot soldier for Ganassi first in open-wheel and then for eight duck-out-of-water years in NASCAR, and into Penske colors.

That transition has clearly been as seamless as Montoya’s return from blaring stock cars to 230 mph rocket ships.

“I’ll tell the truth,” he said this month. “I was really surprised. I went out and I said, ‘I’m going to take my time.’ Full throttle, lifted on three and four, second lap, third lap, fourth lap …”

And, just like that, he was dropping the hammer again. Easy. As if he’d never been gone.

“It was nice,” Montoya says.

And not all that surprising, considering everything. He dominated the 500 the only time he raced in it. Then he dominated two years in a row in a stock car at the Brickyard 400, leading 202 of a possible 320 laps in 2009 and 2010 without winning.

Now it’s back to an IndyCar, a far easier transition.

“When I went to Cup, it was hard because it was something I’d never done,” Montoya said last week. “After a while, it’s whatever the car will give you. You know what I mean? One year you make the Chase, and the next year as a team you go backward and you finish 25th. It’s like, ‘What happened?’

“(Here) it was just readjusting to the car, understanding the car, the tools that I had, get myself and the team on the same page on what I want out of the car. One of the cool things about being with Team Penske, they do such a good job with the cars. They really know what they’re doing. It makes it so easy for us, it really does.”

Easy. Roger Penske will tell you it was easy, not exactly a no-brainer but perhaps its next-door neighbor.

“For us, it was an opportunity (bringing in Montoya),” Penske said this month. “We didn’t start thinking until the end of last year that we would run a third car. When (Montoya) became available, it’s a matter of ‘Let’s go.’ ”

And now we come to the 98th running, and, like Montoya with Penske, what’s strange no longer seems strange. Kanaan, in the Target Ganassi No. 10, starts on the inside of Row 6. Villeneuve, in the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports No. 5, starts on the outside of Row 9.

Busch starts outside Row 4, and Briscoe, in his No. 8 Ganassi ride, starts outside Row 10.

And Montoya?

In the No. 2 Penske seat Briscoe used to occupy, he’ll start inside Row 4, having qualified faster (231.007) than anyone in the field except pole sitter Ed Carpenter.

Let’s go, indeed.

bensmith@jg.net

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