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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (March 14, 2016) -- Team Penske dominated the Verizon IndyCar Series opener, as Juan Pablo Montoya cruised to victory over his teammate Simon Pagenaud in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
A Penske car has won the St. Pete race eight times in the past 12 years, with Montoya taking the past two. Helio Castroneves completed a great day for Indy car racing's most successful team, taking fourth place behind Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay.
The Penske attack was weakened when pole winner Will Power was a last-minute scratch from the race after being diagnosed with a minor concussion. Oriol Servia was a last-minute substitute, finishing 18th in the No. 12 Verizon car.
Power had claimed his sixth St. Pete pole in the past seven years on Saturday, but with the sport's fastest man sidelined, Montoya was able to control the second half of the 110-lap race to win by 2.33 seconds over Pagenaud.
"I hope we can finish like we start in 2016," said team owner Roger Penske.
Indeed, IndyCar championships have been hard to come by for Penske in recent years, with Power's 2014 title the only one since 2006. By contrast, Chip Ganassi Racing has won six IndyCar crowns in that time span.
Last year, Montoya won at St. Petersburg and led the championship all year long, only to lose out to Ganassi's Scott Dixon in the double points-paying final round.
The championship defeat rankled Montoya, who swears that he's not going to watch the points race this time around.
"Just wins," he said. "I'm just going for wins this year ... that's the plan."
St. Petersburg certainly went to plan for Montoya. He started third, passed Castroneves for second on Lap 11, then began to cut into Pagenaud's 4.5-second lead.
By the 35th lap, helped by a slightly quicker first pit stop under green, Montoya had caught his teammate.
The first caution of the race flew on Lap 50, and the Lap 57 restart brought the key moment -- Montoya forced his way past Pagenaud; the two Penske Chevrolets ran side by side through Turns 1 and 2 before Montoya finally pulled ahead.
"It's great to race teammates because we race each other hard, but we give each other room," Montoya said. "I think we actually touched a couple times, but he gave me room and we both made it through."
Pagenaud fought hard, but the Frenchman had to give way to the Colombian, and that was essentially the race right there. Montoya said he battled play in his steering in the closing laps, but he was never threatened on the way to his 15th career IndyCar race win.
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric believes that getting the new season off to a strong start was important for Montoya after the disappointing end to his 2015 campaign.
"It was a great team effort, and I know Juan needed that after the way last year ended," Cindric said. "To be able to come back here and win this race is huge.
"Pagenaud started in the same spot last year and the results today are a lot different," he added. "That was a predictable race, and the kind of race we needed."
Despite the banner day for Penske, it still must be difficult to realize that the man who arguably entered the season as the team's strongest championship threat is starting the season with a 50-point deficit.
Cindric revealed that Power's concussion is considered minor and he hopes to be fully recovered in 24 to 48 hours.
Power crashed in the Friday morning practice session, but set the fastest time in another practice later in the day. On Saturday, he smashed his track record by 0.6 seconds en route to pole position, but he struggled through a television interview and was not well enough to attend the post-qualifying news conference.
After the symptoms worsened, Power was re-examined by the IndyCar medical staff and the concussion was discovered. Cindric revealed that Power has been suffering from an inner ear infection for the past month and his cheek was swollen on Friday prior to the accident.
The fact that several Penske team members have experienced nausea from stomach flu created additional confusion about Power's condition.
"Double points will be his friend, for once," Cindric said with a laugh. "You've seen a lot of guys start the season in a hole if you look back at the past. Sometimes the guys that don't do well at St. Pete end up OK.
"Certainly we won't give up, and hopefully it will all come back around."
As races go, St. Pete wasn't an artistic success. Comic relief was provided just past halfway when Carlos Munoz tapped Graham Rahal into a spin, sweeping in another half dozen cars and blocking the track. Munoz later apologized to Rahal.
But there wasn't the usual first corner pile-up, and Munoz apart, very little of the bonehead driving that occasionally mars IndyCar Series races.
The rookies acquitted themselves well, with Conor Daly leading 15 laps while running an alternate pit stop strategy for Dale Coyne Racing. He finished 13th, right behind IndyCar debutant Alexander Rossi.
Hondas took three of the top six finishes, and the Honda aerodynamic package generally looked more competitive against the Chevrolets than it did last year.
But nobody had an answer for Team Penske at a track where it continues to dominate.
"It's always a big disappointment when one of your top rabbits isn't able to run, but we have a good team and you saw the strength of it today," Penske said. "To run three out of the first four is about all you can ask for."
Well, that and a healthy Will Power.
"The key thing is for him to be 100 percent physically, and the big focus is on the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500," Penske said. "We need to get him ready for that one."