SONOMA -- Race car drivers today don't come to the track with résumés more impressive than the one authored by Juan Pablo Montoya.
He has won on big ovals, short ovals, tight street courses and natural-terrain road courses. He has driven to victory lane in high-tech open-wheel racers and prototype sports cars -- not to mention considerably lower-tech stock cars. He is one of only two drivers (Graham Hill is the other) to win the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, two of the most famous and prestigious races in the world.
His gutsy, fearless, aggressive driving style has earned him fans around the world. He comes to this weekend's Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma as the closest thing to a living legend as any driver racing today.
After spending the past seven years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series exclusively making left turns for 34 of 36 race weekends, Montoya has returned to his roots in open-wheel racing in IndyCar. And at age 38, he is finding success in what could have been a difficult transition season with Team Penske.
"It's been OK," said Montoya, who won this year's Pocono 500 and is fifth in the standings, 114 points behind teammate Will Power with two races remaining. "I'm driving well, but I need to feel a little more comfortable in the car to be able to hustle it around a little harder. I know I'm generating good lap times, but to be really, really good I need to be more comfortable in the car. It's a little bit about setup and a little bit about me."
Despite the Colombian's vast experience on road and street courses -- did we mention Montoya's six seasons, seven victories and 30 podium finishes in Formula One? -- ovals have come easier for him this year.
"The ovals, because I was doing NASCAR, have definitely been easier," he said. "I always said it was a shame that the first oval of the year was the Indy 500. If it had been later, I would have been a lot better prepared."
Despite minimal preparation in May, Montoya qualified 10th and finished fifth in his first Indianapolis 500 in 14 years. He has done a good job on street courses, just missing the podium at Long Beach in April and finishing second in the opener of the Houston doubleheader in June.
"Street courses, I can race really well," Montoya said. "Road courses seem fine, but we don't do enough of them. We only do three road courses a year and to get the car right, it's tough."
Besides being a guy who routinely pulled off passes that mortals would never consider attempting, winning in any car, anywhere has been a hallmark of Montoya's career.
He burst onto the scene in the CART Series in 1999 and won the championship as a rookie. In 2000, he won the Indianapolis 500 in his first try.
By 2001, Montoya was globe trotting in the biggest racing series in the world -- Formula One. Among his notable triumphs at classic venues were Monaco in 2003 (the season he challenged for the world championship), the Italian Grand Prix at Monza (2001 and 2005) and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone (2005).
In 2006, Montoya stunned the racing world when he announced during the Formula One season that he was jumping to NASCAR in 2007. Reuniting with team owner Chip Ganassi, Montoya's boss when he drove in CART, the Colombian scored his first Sprint Cup victory at Sonoma Raceway. After qualifying poorly and starting 32nd, Montoya worked his way through the field and did a masterful job of saving fuel down the stretch.
Having come from Formula One, road courses were Montoya's strength -- ironically, the opposite of what's happening with him now. With NASCAR taking to the road only twice a year, he kept his right-turn skills sharp by racing with Ganassi's Grand-Am sports car team. In 2007, he won the first of three overall titles at the Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance race.
Even though he never won on a NASCAR oval, Montoya did become the first foreign-born driver to qualify for the Chase for the Cup, finishing eighth in the final standings in 2009. In 2010, he got his only other Sprint Cup triumph, winning on the road course at Watkins Glen.
When Ganassi decided not to bring Montoya back to NASCAR in 2014, Montoya was able to shop around for his next racing opportunity. After winning only twice in the previous seven years, it was easy for him to zero in on his priority.
"I really wanted to be in a winning car," Montoya said last September when he signed with Ganassi's chief IndyCar rival, Roger Penske. "I wanted to race for Roger. In a way, it's always been one of my dreams to be able to be part of his organization."
The 2014 season started slowly as Montoya adjusted to the IndyCar, which is lighter, accelerates more quickly, brakes more quickly and is infinitely more agile than the dinosaurs he had been wheeling around in NASCAR.
Things came together during a stretch of four races in the middle of the season. Montoya was third on the oval at Texas, second on the streets (parking lot of NRG Stadium actually) in Houston No. 1, seventh in Houston No. 2 and first at Pocono. That vaulted him to fourth in the standings.
Montoya comes to Sonoma fresh from finishing second behind Power at the Milwaukee Mile. He's still in championship contention, and not many observers will discount Montoya's odds of winning this Sunday in wine country.
"I think they're OK," Montoya said of his chances. "We'll see how good we are with the car and how good of a job we do."
Contact Darryl Matsuda at 408-920-5215.
Friday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., at Sonoma Raceway
GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma: 1 p.m. Sunday, NBCSN
Tickets: $15 for Friday, $35 for Saturday and $39, $55, $60 or $75 for Sunday. For information and details on other ticket packages, visit racesonoma.com or call 800-870-RACE. Tickets also can be purchased at ticketmaster.com.
Support series: Besides the Verizon IndyCar Series, USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights will also race. Cars are on track beginning at 8:15 a.m. Friday, 8:10 a.m. Saturday and 9:35 a.m. Sunday.
CHRIS TROTMAN/GETTY IMAGES
Juan Pablo Montoya is fifth in the IndyCar Series standings after spending the past seven years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "I'm driving well," he says.