Brian Campe’s route to an Indianapolis 500 victory was circuitous. But so was Juan Pablo Montoya’s, or at least his second. So as Campe, an Alabama native and former NASCAR Xfinity Series crew chief, celebrated on bent knees with the Colombian former open wheel/NASCAR/open wheel again driver, it just made sense.
With two wins in six races and a 25-point buffer over second place in the driver standings, Montoya looks very much like a contender.
“The potential was there from the beginning and we set out to win a championship,” Campe told USA TODAY Sports. “And that’s what we’re going to do. The confidence is high and we’re going to keep doing it.”
Montoya returned to open wheel racing last year after seven full-time and often frustrating seasons in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series and was unfairly expected to flip some mythical switch and become the juggernaut who won the Champ Car title as a 23-year-old rookie in 1999 and the Indianapolis 500 in his first try in 2000. And then followed that with seven Formula One victories.
It did not immediately happen. Montoya struggled early, but won at Pocono and finished the season strong to take fourth in final points. Next, he pushed hard into his second season with Campe, who crew chiefed races at JR Motorsports before joining Team Penske.
As it turns out, another former NASCAR competitor helped ease the transition back to a form of racing that was supposed to rush back naturally.
“I think it was just him building confidence that he could still do it,” Campe said, “building confidence in our communication and just getting those communication lines working so he would know what I was talking about and he knew what I was talking about. We were kind of working in the right direction. That was the biggest thing.”
Stock car vernacular likely expedited their ability to communicate, Campe said.
“We use words like some of the other guys wouldn’t use like ‘wedge,’ where other guys wouldn’t know what we’re talking about,” Campe said. “ ‘You know, it kind of feels like the Texas right rear where you kind of slide it and it doesn’t come back.’ I knew what he was talking about when he was referencing stock cars.”
Montoya won two races in his Sprint Cup career and finished eighth in points in 2009, but was replaced by promising newcomer Kyle Larson beginning last season. Montoya returned to open wheel racing with IndyCar’s premier organization and effusively spoke about the resources and the professionalism that surrounded him.
Montoya established himself a weekly threat from the commencement of this season, holding off teammate and defending series champion Will Power in the opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.
“There’s a real sense of accomplishment,” Campe said as on-lookers began filtering away from the yard of bricks on Sunday. “Everything just kind of came to fruition, of all the hard work and everything, the rough week we had (qualifying 15th). This place will bite you real quick and it also gives back. You just have to respect the place. I had a great driver. He makes everything I do look easy. The guys we have at the shop, it makes it look easy. Anybody could do this with the team we have.”
Montoya isn’t completely re-acclimated, he said, which must be disconcerting for anyone trying to overcome the lead he continues to burnish.
“In the ovals, to be honest with you, my worst oval last year was Indy. It was my first oval,” he said. “That’s what I told the guys. I mean, I had a fifth, I had a win in Pocono, I had a third in Texas. To be honest with you, I should have won Fontana. Still finished fourth.
“Come here, if we blow this today, we’re going to be fifth. That’s what I told the guys. I told my engineer Brian, this is my best car I’ve had in an oval.”
It was good off the hauler. Or the transporter.