LONG POND, Pa. – Juan Pablo Montoya noticed the Colombian fans waving flags and wildly cheering for him as he zipped toward the checkered flag. Moments after celebrating, Montoya ducked his way through the crowd waiting at Victory Lane and headed toward the grandstands to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
“I had to say thanks for coming,” he said.
Montoya saved his deepest gratitude for car owner Roger Penske.
Montoya won the IndyCar race Sunday at Pocono Raceway, the highlight of a triumphant return to open-wheel racing after seven years in NASCAR.
Up ahead, a serious run at the IndyCar championship.
“I think people know I’m coming,” Montoya said.
Montoya won for the first time in the CART/IndyCar Series since 2000 and had his first major victory since he won a road-course race at Watkins Glen in NASCAR in 2010.
Penske’s faith in bringing the talented and tempestuous Montoya aboard was rewarded.
“It’s been a long road, a lot harder than people realize,” Montoya said.
Helio Castroneves was second to make it a 1-2 finish Sunday for Team Penske. With double points awarded in the 500-mile races, Castroneves moved into a tie for the points lead with Team Penske teammate Will Power.
Team Penske did face some roadblocks that could lead to some interesting conversations this week at the shop. Power was hit with a blocking penalty on Castroneves late in the race and had to serve a drive through penalty, costing him a shot at racing for the win. He finished 10th.
Carlos Munoz, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon completed the top five.
Montoya, who won from the pole, took the lead for good when Tony Kanaan was forced to pit for fuel with four laps left. Montoya took it from there and continued to stamp himself a player in the championship hunt. He moved to fourth in the standings.
“As soon as we signed him, I knew he would be an asset for us, and a headache,” Castroneves said.
Montoya damaged his front wing when he connected with Power on a pass for the lead on the 167th lap. Power’s penalty troubles continued at Pocono when he blocked Castroneves on the 171st lap, effectively ending his shot at victory.
“You tell them, ‘Let’s keep each other on the track,’ ” Penske said. “But that was a little tight right there.”
Power said he tried to let Castroneves go and had no intention of blocking him. Power has been smacked with a rash of penalties this season, ranging from pit speed violations to contact with other drivers.
“I’ve got to stop it,” he said. “I’ve got to stop getting drive-throughs.”
Montoya, the 1999 CART champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500, winner took the checkered flag to the sight of hundreds of Colombian fans waving the flag and cheering him on.
It was just the kind of scene he pictured when he decided to head home to open wheel. Montoya wanted a competitive ride again after lackluster results driving for Chip Ganassi in NASCAR. He knew his open wheel return would have a learning curve: Montoya last ran in CART in 2000, then left Formula One midway through the 2006 season for NASCAR.
After only two top 10s in his first seven starts, Montoya reeled off a third, second and seventh in his past three. Now, he has the win needed to erase any lingering doubts that has move back to open wheel was the right one.
“Are you kidding? This guy is unbelievable,” Castroneves said. “Coming back after 15 years to win a race, he did a great job.”
The 200-lap race was caution free for the first 158 laps until Graham Rahal spun to bring out the yellow. The 158 consecutive laps of green flag racing to open a race was the longest stretch for a 500-mile race in IndyCar history.
Indianapolis 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay lost his shot at winning the series’ Triple Crown when he was forced out only 28 laps into the race. Pocono and Fontana join the Indianapolis 500 as the three races that use three-wide starts, run 500 miles and award double points.
Hunter-Reay threw his hands up in frustration when he left a car that had a suspension issue.
“It just gave up,” he said.
He would rejoin the race and finished 18th.
Carlos Heurtas, a winner last weekend at Houston, also left the race when his car wouldn’t start on pit road.
Rookie Jack Hawksworth missed the race and was hospitalized with a heart contusion suffered Saturday in an accident during the second practice session.
Montoya won the race in front of a crowd estimated at much less than the 35,000 that attended last year.
Pocono CEO Brandon Igdalsky said last week ticket sales “were kind of scary” compared with last year when IndyCar returned to the track for the first time in 24 years. Igdalsky met with IndyCar CEO Mark Miles before the race to discuss the series’ future at the track.
“The overall goal is to keep the cars here,” Igdalsky said. “We want IndyCar to be part of Pocono. IndyCar wants to be part of Pocono.”
The ones who turned out saw a fast one: The average speed of 202.402 mph was the fastest 500-mile race in IndyCar history.