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IN THE PITS: Montoya roars to an old-school victory but shows humility not seen before

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — There was a time when the edge to Juan Pablo Montoya was evident everywhere he went. His arrogance was on display as he walked through the paddock, his confidence in a race car clear with every fearless move he made.

But when the success stopped, the great JPM was no longer the intimidating force he had once been. His abrupt departure from Formula One, followed by seven subpar seasons in NASCAR, made him just another driver in a crowded field of also-rans.

Then he got a chance at a do-over. Offered a job to return to open wheel racing with Roger Penske, Montoya's career was given the fresh start he so badly needed.

Now, after his win in the IndyCar season opener Sunday through the streets of St. Petersburg, it was clear that the old Montoya was back — but with a twist. He's got his old swagger back, his drive and determination are at levels he's not had in years, but that callousness he used to carry everywhere has softened.

As fans crowded the fence near victory lane on Sunday chanting his name, waiving Colombian flags, desperately trying to get close to their hero, Montoya stopped what he was doing to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

That's a common courtesy for most top drivers, but not one a younger Montoya would have likely done.

Tony Kanaan, who raced against Montoya during his first stint in American open wheel, doesn't think Montoya has ever changed his personality. But age and three children may have softened Montoya a bit.

"We all grow up. We have kids. I think we kind of change a little bit in a way," Kanaan said. "Seeing Juan celebrating with the fans the way he did (Sunday), I can assure you that wouldn't have happened 15 years ago. But that was Juan back then. I think you go through experiences in life to learn.

"I think he got probably a pretty big wake-up call when he moved to the other side, to NASCAR, and he was just one more, right? Then when he came back here, he was a little bit of a different person."

Montoya doesn't speak poorly of his time in NASCAR. He notes he's the only driver in Chip Ganassi Racing history to qualify for the championship playoffs, and thinks his struggles in a stock car had more to do with an underperforming organization than with his talent level.

And he freely admits his move to IndyCar last season with Team Penske was a struggle, and his inability to get any comfort level on the road or street courses left him embarrassed at times.

But when it comes to talking about himself, about any differences there may be in him emotionally, Montoya appears uncomfortable.

PHOTO: Race winner Juan Pablo Montoya, right, of Colombia, sprays champagne on runner-up Will Power, of Australia, after the IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg auto race Sunday, March 29, 2015, in St. Petersburg, Fla.  (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Race winner Juan Pablo Montoya, right, of Colombia, sprays champagne on runner-up Will Power, of Australia, after the IndyCar Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg auto race Sunday, March 29, 2015, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

He dances around the question, finding ways to address everything but the personal growth he's had since he showed up in 1999 as a brash 23-year-old who ripped off seven wins, the CART championship and followed it up the next season with a dominating victory in the Indianapolis 500.

"Maybe a little, but ... I don't know," Montoya squirmed when asked if he's changed at all.

"I've never been a big believer in what people say about me. As long as I feel I'm doing a really good job, I'm driving the wheels off the car, the people I drive for are happy, that's all that really matters. Do I pay maybe a little more attention to the fans? Yeah, I would say I do. When you're out there (on the track), I'm still the same, if you want to call it (jerk), whatever you want to call it, it's good."

This hybrid version of the old Montoya is exactly what IndyCar needs right now.

Hugely popular in Latin America, Montoya boasts one of the biggest Twitter followings of any driver in an American racing series. He's beloved by fans in his native Colombia, loathed by others who believe he's nothing but an on-track bully and an off-track prima donna.

Montoya is the driver who can move the needle.

Give him a good car and a strong team, and his confidence will soar. It's evident when he struts into a room that Montoya once again believes he's the baddest thing on wheels.

Alas, it's early in this second season with Penske, and he now finds himself on a powerhouse lineup that includes reigning IndyCar champion Will Power, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and newcomer Simon Pagenaud.

After one weekend, it sure looks as if all four Penske drivers will compete against each other for the championship this season. How that plays out in team meetings, on the race track, and in dealings with each other remains to be seen.

Maybe Montoya will practice some give and take. Maybe he'll only take.

Power, who led 75 laps Sunday only to lose the lead to Montoya during pit stops, tried once to regain the lead from his teammate. Montoya closed the door, the two cars made contact, and Power's front wing was damaged.

It was just racing, Power later shrugged, and downplayed any potential drama developing with Montoya.

"Juan has been known to be a tough teammate. You hear rumors," Power said. "But he's pretty honest. He'll tell you straight up. I don't think he beats around the bush, tries to play games or anything. I've enjoyed working with him. I've learned stuff off of him. He's a very tough competitor, tough racer.

"You know if he's behind you or you're racing with him, he's very difficult to keep behind. So, yeah, you know, that's him, right?"

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