ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Twenty-four hours before securing his 13th Indy car victory and first on a road/street course since Vancouver in his 1999 CART championship season, Juan Pablo Montoya was sizing up the Verizon IndyCar Series season.
“Roger (Penske) hired me to get the job done and I do my best to get the job done,” he said.
Montoya did just that in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He held off Team Penske teammate and reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power over the final 27 laps and won by .9930 of a second in the competition debut of the aerodynamic bodywork packages supplied by Chevrolet and Honda.
Montoya held a 3.3-second advantage over Power following an exchange of final pit stops on Laps 81 and 82, but Power closed to .6147 of a second on Lap 100 and was sizing up an opportunity to overtake the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
Power, who set the track record on the way to winning the Verizon P1 Award for the 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course, made his move entering the tight left-hand Turn 10 on Lap 101. The cars made slight contact and Power’s No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet fell back 1.5474 seconds back at the start/finish line.
"If I hadn't damaged my (front) wing, maybe I would have had another shot,” Power said. “He was very strong on the front straight and my exits weren't very good. That was really my only chance. I thought maybe I would catch him off-guard there. You don't expect someone to pass there, so, yeah, I gave it a shot.
“I was surprised at how aggressively he turned, but he wanted to win the race and so did I.”
Said Montoya, who recorded his second victory since returning full time to IndyCar racing in 2014: “I saw him make the move but he was way too far and I wasn’t going to give him the position. 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.
“The tires were not falling off and right there at the end I was just running slow to look after them. When I needed to push I could push. Everybody with Verizon and Team Penske did an amazing job; Chevy as well. This aero kit is amazing to drive.”
The last Team Penske 1-2 finish was August 2014 at Milwaukee, with Power beating Montoya by 2.7 seconds. It was the 175th Indy car victory for the team (78 on road or street courses).
“It was a fight between our two guys in front. It was just an amazing weekend,” Penske said. “To come back this year with the fast times in qualifying and win this race 1-2, and four drivers in the top six, wow, what a day.”
Tony Kanaan, driving the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, finished 11.1685 seconds back in third and Helio Castroneves, the only three-time winner at St. Petersburg, placed fourth in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. Simon Pagenaud finished fifth in the No. 22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet.
“(Team owner) Chip (Ganassi) told me to bring the NTT Data car back in one piece. He didn't want to see a scratch apart from the marbles,” said Kanaan, who qualified seventh in his 234th consecutive start. “We tried to stay out of trouble. The Penske guys were definitely tough today. On that last stint, we had to save a little bit more fuel, and not having the pace, I had to drop back. But we will take third. It's good points, and we have to work from here.”
So does the Honda contingent. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who finished seventh in the No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport car, was the highest-placing Honda entry. Last year at St. Petersburg, Power held Ryan Hunter-Reay at bay on Laps 78-110 to win the race and make an opening-round statement on his way to his first series title.
“I think that was the hardest seventh-place finish I’ve seen,” he said. “That’s how it is sometimes, when you have bad days you have to bring home solid top 10s. We’ll take the top 10 and move ahead with the DHL car for New Orleans.”
The inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana is April 10-12 at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, La.