Montoya wins at St. Pete to lead Team Penske to 1-2 sweep
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. >> There seemed little doubt that a Team Penske driver would win the IndyCar season-opening race even after Will Power was sidelined Sunday 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.
He finished 16th and Munoz finished eighth.
Other notes of interest from the IndyCar opener:
WHAT TO DO: Hunter-Reay had the same frustration as nearly everyone else in the field as he followed the Penske cars around the course all day. A resident of Ft. Lauderdale, the St. Pete event is one of Hunter-Reay's favorite races, but he's not been able to snap the Penske hold atop the podium.
His late pass of Castroneves got him third, but on a day when Penske went 1-2-4 with Power sidelined, it was the best he could do in his Andretti Autosport Honda.
"Penske, the team and the drivers within the team, are some of the best in the sport. When you combine a lot of talent behind the wheel with a car that's dialed in, you get that result," he said. "They obviously have found something nobody else has. That's how you make runs for championships, having certain races like that. We'll probably see some more like that from them."
ROSSI DEBUT: Alexander Rossi made his IndyCar debut Sunday and made his way from 18th to fifth before he needed a lengthy pit stop midrace to change the front wing. The Formula One test driver finished 12th.
"That was probably one of the more challenging days I've had in a race car in quite some time," Rossi said. "We just didn't have the car underneath us for whatever reason it was quite tricky out there. I think we made the most of what we could, we stayed out of trouble and obviously the finishing position doesn't look that bad."
PLUGGING AWAY: Simon Pagenaud had a disappointing first season with Team Penske last year, and his second-place finish is his highest showing with the organization. He had just one podium finish last year, and failed to win a race with a team that should contend every week.
Pagenaud said it takes time to build a team into a weekly contender.
"You don't beat these guys overnight. It's not possible. It's the elite," Pagenaud said. "When you win a race in IndyCar, it's when you've done everything perfect. I made one tiny little mistake and it lost me the race. It's like a football team. You get your football team, assemble the team together, it takes time for everybody to communicate well, understand each other, like each other to work better. That's where we are at now."
UP NEXT: The series makes its long-awaited return to Phoenix International Raceway, a one-time staple of the IndyCar Series, in two weeks. Phoenix hosted open wheel racing from 1964 until 2005. Tony Kanaan is a two-time winner at Phoenix, and one of only four drivers in the current IndyCar field who have raced the oval before. The others are Castroneves, Ed Carpenter and Scott Dixon.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.