A look of shock comes across Juan Pablo Montoya’s face when he is reminded it has been seven years since he last raced in NASCAR.
“That’s crazy, it’s been that much already?” Montoya said with a laugh in a recent interview with NASCAR.com. “When you look back at it, you go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s crazy that it was that long ago. It’s the same thing with F1, which is worse because you can add another (six years before that). People still remember, people still talk about it (his time in NASCAR). It’s good.”
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From 2006 through 2014, Montoya was one of the bigger stars in NASCAR, known for his fiery competitiveness, tenacity, and being one of the toughest drivers to pass on a race track.
But he was also unconventional. He didn’t fit the typical mold of a NASCAR driver.
Whereas most of his peers grew up racing stock cars, Montoya was already a world-class driver — a bonafide international celebrity — when he came to NASCAR.
He won the CART championship as a rookie in 1999. He won the Indianapolis 500 the following year (and again 15 years later, one year removed from his last go-round on the NASCAR circuit).
After conquering CART, he moved to Formula One from 2001 through 2006, earning seven wins and twice finishing third in the championship battle.
He struggled in his final F1 season (2006), yet still finished eighth in the standings for Team McLaren despite competing in only 10 of 18 races.
It was time for a new challenge for the Colombian native, and NASCAR beckoned. He was one of several international drivers of that era who also emigrated to America’s premier racing series, including Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Canadians Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier. But while the others came and went, Montoya was the only one who had staying power.
Montoya came to NASCAR to race for Chip Ganassi Racing. His first full season, 2007, was also his breakthrough season, earning an Xfinity Series win at Mexico City in early March and following that up three and a half months later with his first Cup Series triumph at Sonoma Raceway.
That his first two NASCAR wins came on road courses was not surprising due to his prior road racing proficiency — five of his 10 wins in CART and all seven of his wins in F1 were on road courses.
While Montoya was always a formidable opponent in the Cup Series, his aggressive style at times proved his undoing. Of the 28 DNFs he recorded in his 255 Cup starts, 24 of those were due to crashes — although to be fair, not all were his fault.
Montoya’s best season statistically was 2009. While he did not reach Victory Lane, he had a career-best seven top-five and 18 top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
It was also the only season he made the NASCAR Playoffs, finishing a career-best eighth.
“You know, I really enjoyed NASCAR, and when I worked with Brian Pattie (Montoya’s crew chief from 2008-2011), it was very good,” Montoya said. “We had a really good relationship and we made a lot of good things.
“We worked really well together, we understood each other … we had a shot at the championship and everything (which) not a lot of people do. We did good with what we had.”
Montoya would earn one more Cup win for Ganassi in 2010 — also on a road course (Watkins Glen) — before eventually parting ways after the 2013 season. He’d return to his open-wheel roots with Team Penske’s IndyCar program from 2014 through 2016, earning five wins in that period.
He also competed in two final Cup races for Penske in 2014.
“I had a few opportunities to go to different teams, but I felt loyalty to Chip (Ganassi) was more important,” Montoya said. “In hindsight, if I wanted to stay in NASCAR, I should have made the move. But for me, I felt loyalty was more important.”
Following his return to IndyCar, Montoya shifted to the IMSA Series for Penske, including winning the Prototype championship and three races in 2019 with teammate Dane Cameron.
These days, the 45-year-old Montoya remains busy and competitive, racing in three different series:
* Scheduled to drive seven races for DragonSpeed Racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
* Slated for at least three IMSA Series races for Meyer Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian, including January’s Rolex 24 Hours (finished fourth), next Sunday at Sebring and the season-ending event in Atlanta at Petit Le Mans.
* In a one-off start for Arrow McLaren SP, he returns to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 2017, seeking his third career win in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“Honestly, I’m to the point I still enjoy racing, I’m still competitive,” he said. “As long as I have a drive to do it, I mean, it’s crazy because some people say you know with time you lose the drive, and this and that.”
But not Montoya. He continues to thrive on competition.
The other important part of his life these days is overseeing the development of son Sebastian’s racing career. Sebastian, who turns 16 on April 11, is in his second season of racing in Formula 4 in Europe for Italian team Prema Powertrain.
“He’s very, very quick, he’s crazy fast,” Montoya says of his son. “I think he is a lot smarter than me in a lot of ways. And I think he can race just as good as me, I think, or even better sometimes.
“You know, looking from the outside, I think he just needs a little bit of luck for things to go his way. And once things start clicking, it’ll be like a non-stop thing. I’m pretty excited. I think this year, he’s got an opportunity to make that happen. And if he takes advantage of this situation, it could be an amazing year for him.”
Like his father, the younger Montoya aspires to race one day in F1.
“His number one thing is F1, for sure,” Montoya said of his son. “Probably number two would be like IndyCar. But honestly, he wants to race. He wants to race whatever he can race on.
“He loves it and he works hard and he trains hard and he does whatever. If you tell him he needs to run 20 miles a day, that it’s going to make him quicker, he’ll go and run 20 miles a day. Last year he was very timid and I think he was a little behind everybody when we started the year, mentally and everything. He’s matured a lot. And you can see it within.”
Because of his son’s budding career, Montoya is moving the family from its longtime base in Miami, when he first came to NASCAR, to Monaco in the coming weeks.
While a smattering of grey has started to creep into his boyish mop of dark hair, the impish grin on Montoya’s face is still there. But don’t expect him to return to NASCAR in the twilight years of his racing career.
“Not to disrespect anybody and I did it for seven years, I loved it,” Montoya said. “But when you run 30 something weeks a year, you really don’t have a life. I mean, you really miss a lot of things in life that when you’re doing it, you think it’s fine. And then when you stop, you realize, ‘Oh, my God. Why?’”
When NASCAR raced last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as on most days, Montoya could be found riding his road bike around Miami, pedaling over 20 miles from his home toward the track. But instead of renewing acquaintances with his former NASCAR brethren, he stopped about a mile short, turned around and rode back home.
Even though it’s now at a distance, Montoya still keeps up with NASCAR.
“They’ve always been focused on trying to make a better show and they do,” he said. “The races are always close and everything.”
While other racing series were significantly impacted last season due to COVID-19, Montoya applauds how NASCAR successfully weathered the pandemic and put on a full 36-race schedule as originally planned.
“It was a huge challenge and they did a good job,” he said. “Something that I think right that came out of that is the shorter weekends. At some point, they’re going to have to do some short races … and they’re going to realize you don’t need to be doing three-and-a-half-hour races anymore.”
In addition to missing many of his former rivals, Montoya especially misses NASCAR fans.
“NASCAR fans in general, they’ve always been very good to me,” he said.
Then, he adds with a laugh, “But for some reason, I’ve always been the bad guy. … I think it was funny when I came to NASCAR, everybody was so welcoming until I started running well. It was like, ‘Yes, we want you here, but we don’t want you to win.’
“But it was good. I really enjoyed my time in NASCAR. I don’t have any regrets whatsoever. I mean, it’s a shame we didn’t do more. But I think with what we had, I did pretty damn good.”
With his 46th birthday looming in September, Montoya brushes off talk of retirement from racing anytime soon.
“Honestly, I’m at this point in my career where I’m really happy to be driving, excited to be competitive,” he said. “And that’s really what it’s always been for me. I mean, go get in the car, go fast and that’s it.”
The Juan Pablo Montoya file:
* Age: 45
* Hometown: Bogota, Colombia. Has lived in Miami since 2006 but will be moving shortly to Monaco.
* NASCAR Cup career: Seven full-time seasons (2007-2013) – two wins, 24 top-five and 59 top-10 finishes; also made two starts in 2014 for Roger Penske at Michigan and Brickyard 400.
* NASCAR Xfinity career: 23 starts between 2006-2008 – one win, one top-five, three top-10 finishes.
* Best NASCAR season: 2009, finished eighth in the Chase for the Cup.
Other career highlights:
CART: 40 races over two seasons (1999-2000) – won championship as rookie – 10 wins (including 7 in first season, plus 2000 Indianapolis 500), 13 podiums, 14 poles.
INDYCAR: 53 starts – 5 wins (including 2015 Indianapolis 500), 13 podiums, 1 pole – best season finish was second in 2015.
FORMULA ONE: — 94 starts – 7 wins, 30 podiums, 13 poles – best season finish was third in 2002 and 2003.
ROLEX Grand-Am Series – 8 starts (7 in Rolex 24 and 1 on Indianapolis GP road course) – 3 wins, 5 podiums, 1 pole.
IMSA – 31 starts – 3 wins, 15 podiums, 9 poles – won championship in 2019.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Mark Martin and Marcos Ambrose. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, his podcasts on BLEAV.com, and his email newsletter, TheRacingBeat.substack.com.