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A grand return to Long Beach for Juan Pablo Montoya

Auto RacingStock Car RacingOpen-Wheel RacingJuan Pablo MontoyaJoe Gibbs RacingBrett Davern

Juan Pablo Montoya leaned his back against a wall, adjusted his sunglasses and waited for the next reporter to put a camera or voice recorder in front of him.

It was media day for drivers in Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. And though it's been 14 years since Montoya raced in the event, he was the center of attention.

Montoya is the prodigal son who has returned with fanfare to the Verizon IndyCar Series after stints in Formula One and, for the last seven years, NASCAR stock car racing.

Released by Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team after last season, the 38-year-old Colombian was hired by Ganassi's archrival Roger Penske — whose cars have won the Indianapolis 500 a record 15 times — to return to IndyCar.

Now the motor racing world is waiting to see if Montoya can replicate even some of the success he enjoyed when he burst onto the IndyCar scene in 1999, when he also drove for Ganassi.

That year he won the Long Beach race on his way to a series championship, and the following year he won the Indianapolis 500 in his only start in the legendary race.

So much has changed since then: the cars, the engines, the tires. But Montoya, never lacking for self-confidence, has no doubt he'll soon contend for wins again.

"I know I can drive the heck out of the car, and that's what I want to do and that's why Roger hired me," Montoya said.

"That's what I'm going to do, and I'm going to work as hard as I can to make it happen as quickly as possible," he said. "I've got good cars, good teammates."

Those teammates are three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Australian Will Power, who has finished second in the title standings three of the last four years and is a two-time Long Beach winner.

In the season's first race, on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 30, Montoya qualified 18th and finished 15th. He'll have his work cut out for him again Sunday because he qualified 16th in the 23-car field.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the Long Beach race in 2010, won the pole position with a lap of 104.462 mph on the 1.97-mile, 11-turn Long Beach circuit. His teammate James Hinchcliffe qualified second at 104.280 mph.

Some of Montoya's peers expect he'll be racing in the top 10 in short order.

"I don't think he's very far off at all," said Hunter-Reay, who also won the IndyCar title in 2012. "He's won everything he's ever been in."

After his initial splash in IndyCar racing, Montoya moved to the international Formula One series in 2001. He won seven times over the next six years, including at the Monaco Grand Prix.

Then in 2007, with NASCAR enjoying surging popularity, Montoya joined a group of open-wheel racers who migrated to stock car racing, with Montoya driving for Ganassi's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team.

It was a stunning move, with a driver exchanging the glamour of Monte Carlo for the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega.

But the results overall were disappointing. Montoya did win two Cup races on twisty road courses — one in 2007 and another in 2010 — but never won on an oval track in 253 total Cup starts.

He also qualified for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff in 2009 (and finished eighth in the points), but in his last three years he finished 21st, 22nd and 21st in the Cup standings, respectively.

Part of the problem was that Ganassi's cars often lagged behind the speed of those fielded by such top NASCAR teams as Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. But Montoya also drew his share of the blame for being inconsistent.

Emblematic of Montoya's struggle was that his most publicized NASCAR moment came when his broken car slammed into a track-drying truck, triggering a fireball, during the Daytona 500 in 2012.

So Ganassi, knowing he had 21-year-old prodigy Kyle Larson waiting in the wings, released Montoya after last season despite his long friendship with Montoya.

With Montoya back on the market, Penske pounced. "I want to be a winning car, and I can't ask for a better winning car than from Penkse," Montoya said.

Penske doesn't expect instant success, but he does expect Montoya to hit his stride by the Indianapolis 500 on May 25, Montoya said.

"Everything is going to build to the 500, and I think the season truly starts for us after that," Montoya said.

"They know I have the speed and the ability to do it," he said. "But they know as well that I'm going back to something very different. When you put yourself in a hole with the lack of experience in open-wheel [racing], I'm going to pay the price."

Tony Kanaan, last year's Indy 500 winner, said Montoya would soon be a threat to win, but "people on the outside misjudge the level of drivers that we have" in IndyCar.

"It's the same way when you get to NASCAR; you can't just beat Jimmie Johnson and those guys because they've been there forever," Kanaan said. "If you look at me, [Long Beach] is my 278th grand prix. [Montoya] missed that.

"His biggest challenge is going to be the pressure that he's going to put on himself to do well right away," Kanaan said. But he added that Montoya is "not the type of guy that gets aggravated by anything. He has that attitude that, 'I'll get it.'"

Other Long Beach races

Co-drivers Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won in the prototype class of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship series race Saturday, and the team of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia won in the GTLM division. Actor Brett Davern won the pro/celebrity race.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Auto RacingStock Car RacingOpen-Wheel RacingJuan Pablo MontoyaJoe Gibbs RacingBrett Davern
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