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Juan Montoya puts NASCAR behind him

Juan Pablo Montoya was at Homestead with his family when he started getting text messages from the disappointing career he left behind.

NASCAR teams were testing for 2014, and someone from his old team said they missed having him in the driver's seat.

"I'm like, Why are you missing me?" Montoya said. "I had no idea they were even testing."

Five months after one of this generation's most talented drivers lost his Sprint Cup ride, Montoya had moved on.

His next move begins with Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where he'll try to reestablish himself as one of the world's elite drivers with a fresh restart in IndyCar.

"If I look back at everything I've done, the most fun and best racing I've done in my career, it's been in IndyCar," Montoya said during last month's series media day in Orlando.

Montoya won the CART series championship as a rookie in 1999. The next year, he led 167 of 200 laps to become the first rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 in more than three decades. Then in 2001 he jumped to Formula One, where he won seven times and had 30 podium finishes in six years.

The 38-year-old is the only driver to win the Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours at Daytona, and his success helped inspire a new generation of racers in his native Colombia.

"He's one of the reasons I'm here," said Sebastian Saavedra, a 23-year-old Colombia native and an IndyCar competitor with KV AFS Racing.

But why is Montoya here, again?

Like open-wheel stars Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti, Montoya struggled in the bulkier stock cars.

He won only two of his 253 Sprint Cup races. His only appearance in the Chase for the Championship ended in an eighth-place finish in 2009. He was knocked out of 28 races but had only 24 top-five finishes.

One of the enduring lowlights came in 2012, when a mechanical problem led his No. 42 Chevrolet to slam into a jet dryer during a caution at the Daytona 500.

"When we had good cars, we did good," Montoya said. "When we had bad cars, we did bad."

In August, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing decided to cut Montoya and replaced him with rising star Kyle Larson, who finished second Sunday in just his ninth Sprint Cup race.

Team Penske quickly picked up Montoya to take over its No. 2 Chevrolet in IndyCar and put him alongside perennial championship contenders Helio Castroneves and Will Power.

"For me, it's all about winning," Montoya said.

How quickly Montoya can get back to that is one of IndyCar's biggest preseason questions.

He struggled in his early tests. He said he feels like a rookie again because the cars brake better and have more grip. He has never raced at St. Petersburg, where Penske has five wins and five poles in the previous 10 races.

Montoya found speed in last week's test at Barber Motorsports Park, in Birmingham, Ala., clocking the second-fastest lap, but he expects to need a few races to grasp the fuel-saving strategies.

"I would be very surprised by the end of season if he did not win a race," said ABC/ESPN racing analyst Scott Goodyear, who called Montoya one of the most talented drivers of the past decade.

As for his failed NASCAR career, Montoya hasn't looked back.

His wife turned on the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona last month after hearing that a pace car caught fire. She kept watching.

Montoya fell asleep.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Juan Montoya puts NASCAR behind him 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 10:14pm]
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