LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Juan Pablo Montoya has to come from the back of the field to win another 500-mile race.
Montoya hit a minor bump in his bid to stretch his points lead with two races left in the IndyCar season, the Indianapolis 500 champion qualifying 19th for the race Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
All the other open-wheel championship contenders will start well ahead of Montoya.
Graham Rahal, in second place for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, qualified fifth as he tries to trim a nine-point deficit. Rahal, with two wins, is aiming for his first career championship and hopes to at least take the top spot in the standings following the 500-miler.
“I’ve enjoyed the whole year,” Rahal said, “but I’m so damn close now, it would suck to go home second.”
He won’t start first: Helio Castroneves won the pole Saturday with a two-lap average of 220.530 mph, a strong push toward yet another drive at his first career championship. Castroneves is in fourth place, 58 points behind his Team Penske teammate Montoya.
“We’ve got to bring this championship to Team Penske,” Castroneves said.
Just 34 points out in third place, Scott Dixon starts 11th.
Montoya seemed as if he was headed toward a runaway championship after eight straight top-10 finishes. But he finished 24th and 11th in the last two races. Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 champ, won Pocono from the pole last season.
“We’ve still got a pretty good car and we’ve been good in 500-mile races,” Montoya said. “I’m not too worried about it.”
Will Power is 59 points out of the lead for Team Penske and pretty much the last driver who can stake even a feint claim at winning the championship. Power starts third and the reigning IndyCar champion would likely need a victory to remain in contention.
The IndyCar championship will be decided Aug. 30 in the season finale on the road course at Sonoma.
Simon Pagenaud joins his Penske teammate Castroneves on the front row. Josef Newgarden starts fifth, followed by Rahal, Carlos Munoz, Justin Wilson, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato and Sebastien Bourdais.
Rahal is coming off a win at Mid-Ohio and is determined to stake his claim as champion and the face of IndyCar.
“I think IndyCar is on the rise,” Rahal said, “and I feel like being champion, I could do a lot to help it. That’s the biggest pressure I feel at this point.”
Rahal knows a championship would be a big boost for IndyCar, which has been slowly trying to recapture the public’s imagination after its infamous 1990s split.
“I’d try to be much more active, whether it’s media or social media,” he said. “I follow most of these (drivers) on Twitter and I didn’t see anybody tweeting about coming here to Pocono. I’m the only one out here doing it. That’s the sort of thing people need to do a better job of.”
He’s the lone driver for RLL Racing and the standard-bearer for Honda. Castroneves-Pagenaud-Power make it a 1-2-3 start for team owner Roger Penske and his fleet of Chevrolets.
“If Montoya is not winning the race, it’s better that we go ahead and try to take points away from Rahal and Dixon,” Pagenaud said.
The top 10 drivers in points are still mathematically eligible for the championship at Pocono. With double points available at Sonoma, any driver within 104 points of the leader after Pocono still has a shot to win it all.
At 40, Castroneves is running out of years to win his first career championship.
“Hopefully this will be the one, for the chase for the last one,” he said. “Since it’s a double points last race, it’s extremely important having an opportunity to go to the last race in a position to win.”
Castroneves is the only driver in the top six in the standings who has yet to win a race.
“We want to bring this championship for Team Penske no matter what,” Castroneves said. “We all want to give this to Captain Roger Penske.”
Dixon’s run was a meager highlight for Chip Ganassi Racing, which had saw its other three drivers struggle. Tony Kanaan is 12th, Sage Karam 20th and Charlie Kimball was 23rd.
Kimball was caught up in a vicious accident that sent the No. 83 into the catch fence. Kimball quickly signaled he was fine and needed stitches on his chin, but was otherwise fine. The qualifying session was delayed 48 minutes while the fence was repaired.
“I was a little aggressive, but it’s qualifying,” he said. “You have to go for it.”