SONOMA, Calif. — If Juan Pablo Montoya returns to IndyCar next year, he'll get a warm welcome from the drivers he'll have to beat.
Michael Andretti is looking for sponsors for an IndyCar ride for Montoya, who is leaving Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team. Montoya says he hasn't decided where he's going next, but several drivers at Sonoma Raceway think he belongs back in American open-wheel racing, which left in 2001 for Formula One, followed by an underwhelming foray into NASCAR.
"It would be nice to see him with a smile on his face," said Dario Franchitti, a longtime teammate who drives for Ganassi's IndyCar team.
Montoya spent the past seven years in NASCAR, winning just twice in 239 starts with Ganassi teams. Yet the 37-year-old Colombian still is widely considered an elite driving talent, and he had his best years in open-wheel racing.
Franchitti has been racing against Montoya since even before their days in CART more than a decade ago, and the Scot has teamed with Montoya at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
"I think it would be great for the series, and I think it would be great for Juan Pablo, if he wants to do it," said Franchitti, who's on the pole for Sunday's IndyCar race in Northern California wine country.
"I know how good a driver he is," Franchitti added. "I'd like to think, coming back here, he would get his motivation back and put a smile on his face. I would love to see it happen. He's definitely got the hunger, and I think he's at the stage of his life and his career that he's only going to do something that he wants and he can enjoy."
That something just might be IndyCar, which could use his talent and star power – and Andretti is trying to make it happen for his former opponent. Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely be Montoya's teammate at Andretti Autosport, if sponsors can be found.
"I think having Montoya in the series, or in the team, would be good," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm open to it. I haven't heard anything about it, (but) I think he'd be great for the series. He's one of the top talents in the world, and it would be great to race against him."
Montoya is exploring his options as a free agent, and they aren't limited to IndyCar.
Although there aren't many quality NASCAR seats currently available, a spot at Furniture Row Racing will open up if Kurt Busch moves to Stewart-Haas Racing, which is eagerly courting him. Montoya could be a candidate to replace Busch.
While he might be able to land another NASCAR ride, Montoya recently acknowledged that his "heart has always been in open wheel" even during his NASCAR career.
Franchitti and fellow Ganassi driver Scott Dixon are confident Montoya still has the passion necessary to win championships, particularly behind the wheels of his favorite cars.
"I think you kind of cross that line at some point in your life, and you wake up and you just can't be bothered," Dixon said. "You can definitely see that's not what's happening with Juan. I would definitely welcome it. I've been teammates with him for seven, eight years now. He's a good friend and a good person, and if he does decide to make that move, we would welcome him back with open arms."
Montoya won 11 races in CART for Ganassi in 1999 and 2000, including the Indianapolis 500 in his second year.
Andretti is still waiting to finalize its lineup while figuring out the future of James Hinchcliffe, the breakout three-time IndyCar winner this season. Andretti must lock down Hinchcliffe's sponsorship from GoDaddy before deciding its future – and Hinchcliffe is currently able to negotiate with other teams.
But Andretti has said he could even run five cars next season if Hinchcliffe returns and he finds sponsorship for Montoya. Although Montoya could be an immediate title contender in IndyCar with the right team and backing, his fellow drivers are eager to see what he could do in optimal conditions.
"I get to see what he's capable of at Daytona 24 Hours every year," Franchitti said. "I know how good he is, so it would be great to see him back."