ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — There was never a doubt that Team Penske would win the IndyCar Series opener.
After the four Penske drivers led every on-track session through the streets of St. Petersburg and qualified 1-2-3-4, the only question was which Penske driver would end the weekend celebrating in victory lane.
Juan Pablo Montoya wasn’t anyone’s first pick.
Yet the Colombian pulled it off Sunday, when he grabbed the lead from teammate Will Power during green-flag pit stops, then slammed the door closed on Power’s lone attempt to get back to the front.
Montoya won his second race since his return last season to IndyCar, and it came at a track in which he struggled mightily a year ago. This race in 2014 was his first after seven seasons in NASCAR, and he found the feel he needed to get comfortable in his new Penske ride.
“Last year was very disappointing — it was tough not only here, but generally on the street courses,” Montoya said. “I’m a guy that always excelled at street courses everywhere I raced. To come here and have a year with really bad street course racing, it was pretty tough. I was never happy with the car.”
Montoya’s only win last year came on the oval at Pocono. This win at St. Pete was his first IndyCar victory on a road or street course since Vancouver in 1999.
“If you told me this morning I was going to win the race, I would have said ‘no,'” he said. “I just wanted to get some good points, have no mistakes, have good pit stops, see where we finish.”
Power, the reigning IndyCar champion, settled for second after leading 75 laps.
He lost the lead to the Colombian driver when Montoya made a routine pit stop one lap before Power’s scheduled stop. The Australian chased his teammate for several laps before seizing what he believed was his only shot to reclaim the lead.
Power dipped inside of Montoya as they entered the 10th turn with 11 laps remaining, but Montoya quickly closed the opening. The two Chevrolets made contact, which broke off a piece of Power’s wing.
“It was the only place that I could kind of get a run on him,” Power said. “It was the only chance I had. I think he saw me and it was kind of optimistic. If he gave me some (room), I would have taken it, but he didn’t. It was kind of my only chance. If I didn’t damage my wing, I maybe would have another shot.”
Montoya didn’t think he did anything wrong.
“I saw him make the move, but he was way too far and I wasn’t going to give him the position,” Montoya said. “If he was beside me I would have said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ When I got to the turning point, he wasn’t even close. It is a shame we touched, but it’s all good, it’s racing.”
Penske had no problem at all with the hard racing between teammates.
“We said at the beginning, ‘Let’s take care of ourselves, and at the end, they’ve got to go race,’ ” Penske said. “I think you saw that Will was trying to get by, and Juan didn’t want him to get by. I’m sure they understand that and we’ll just move on to the next race.”
The Penske organization still celebrated a 1-2 finish, and one of the most dominating weekends in recent series history.
The four-car contingent was the heavy race favorites since arriving in St. Petersburg. All four Penske drivers were fast in every session, and they swept the top four starting spots for Sunday’s race.
Tony Kanaan broke up the Penske party with a third-place finish Chip Ganassi Racing, and but he was followed by Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud as Penske put all four drivers in the top five.
“We broke up the Penske 1-2-3-4, so we’re happy about that,” Kanaan said. “Of course, starting the season with a win and a second place, those two guys, we know they are going to be strong all year.”
So strong, Penske might just have four title contenders.
“As we thought, It’s going to be a battle between teammates for the championship, I’m sure,” Power said,
Sebastien Bourdais was sixth for KVSH Racing as Chevrolet took the top six spots in the debut race for manufacturer-designed aerodynamic bodykits.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was seventh in an Andretti Autosport Honda, and Jack Hawksworth was eighth in a Honda and his debut race for A.J. Foyt Racing.
The new aero kits contributed to many yellow flags because contact between the cars caused broken parts to fly onto the racing surface in several instances. Much of the damage was from front and rear wings being clipped.
“You are not supposed to hit anyone, man,” said Kanaan. “This is open wheel racing. It’s not stock cars or touring cars.”
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