There seemed little doubt that a Team Penske driver would win the IndyCar season-opening race even after Will Power was sidelined just prior to the race with a concussion.
Juan Pablo Montoya won on the streets of St. Petersburg for the second consecutive year to continue the Team Penske dominance at this event.
The win by Montoya was the eighth in 12 tries for Penske drivers. Simon Pagenaud finished second to make it a 1-2 Penske finish, but Ryan Hunter-Reay spoiled the sweep by passing Helio Castroneves with three laps remaining.
“It’s nice to start the year with a win. You know what I mean?” Montoya said. “When you’re in Team Penske, there’s always that pressure that you’ve got to win races. You have to win. You’re in the best car, you’ve got to win races. So to start the year with a win, it’s like, ‘Oh, I got that one out of the way.'”
Castroneves finished fourth as Chevrolet and Penske drivers took three of the top four spots. Hunter-Reay in third was the highest-finishing Honda. Mikhail Aleshin and Takuma Sato were fifth and sixth for Honda.
But it was a Penske show the entire weekend, and the four drivers dominated nearly every session to set up the eventual victory. Team Penske, which is celebrating its 50th year of racing, has a record 179 wins in open wheel racing.
The day got off to a rocky start for the Penske organization, though, because pole-sitter Power was diagnosed with a concussion that made him a Sunday morning scratch. He wrecked during a Friday practice session but was medically cleared to drive. Power broke his own track record three times in Saturday qualifying to lead a 1-2-3-4 Penske sweep in qualifying, but he was ill every time he exited the car.
IndyCar diagnosed him with a mild concussion and he was placed in the protocol program. He can’t race again until he’s been medically cleared by IndyCar. The next event is April 2 at Phoenix International Raceway.
“To be honest, I was surprised he qualified. He wasn’t feeling that well before qualifying,” Montoya said. “He did an amazing job, how sick he was. He did really good.”
Oriol Servia was brought in to replace Power. He started last in the field and made up a good bit of position but was involved in an eight-car accident that relegated him to an 18th-place finish.
Montoya, meanwhile, led the final 25 laps and beat Pagenaud by 2.3 seconds to win for the second year in a row. Montoya led the points last year from the opening race until the finale, where he lost the championship on a tiebreaker to Scott Dixon. Along the way, he won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career. Asked Sunday if he’s headed to another Indy 500 win, Montoya indicated he’s taking each race one at a time.
“We’re here to win everything,” he said.
Pagenaud dominated early, leading the first 48 laps around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course.
It seemed no one had anything for Pagenaud, who led by more than five seconds at one point. But a spin by Marco Andretti brought out the first caution and gave Montoya a chance to get past his teammate on the restart.
“It’s great to have teammates because we race each other hard, but we give each other room,” Montoya said.
An eight-car accident interrupted the action when Carlos Munoz ran into the back of Graham Rahal in the fourth turn. Rahal was then hit by Servia as several cars all made contact on the clogged track. Munoz appeared to apologize to Rahal after the race, and although the two shook hands, Rahal didn’t seem pleased.
The next race for this series will be at the Phoenix International Raceway. It will be the first race by this series in 10 years at PIR.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!