By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter & NASCAR Contributor
Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the final half of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to take his second consecutive win in the season opening event for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Montoya mostly ran in arrears to his Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud for the opening 46 laps of the race as the Frenchman pulled out to a sizable lead over the course of the opening stint. Following the first round of green flag pitstops, Pagenaud continued to keep his teammate at bay for the next 20 laps but just as the next round of pitstops began, Marco Andretti made contact with Luca Filippi in turn one and spun.
Andretti stalled the car as he was trying to spin it back around and brought out the race’s first full course yellow on lap 46. Pagenaud led Montoya and most of the pack down pit road as Conor Daly picked up the lead. Daly, in his first race of his 2016 rookie campaign, pitted on lap 13 which brought him into the top 5 after the first cycle of pitstops and had just pitted before the yellow flag flew and found himself in the catbird’s seat as the leaders pitted.
After a no-go restart on lap 55, Daly held off a hard charging Tony Kanaan for the race lead while Montoya overtook Pagenaud in turn one to take over third place. Behind the leaders, a melee broke out in turn four when Carlos Munoz overdrove the corner and crashed into the back of Graham Rahal. Rahal was then hit by Oriol Servia and Jack Hawksworth and Alexander Rossi piled in.
That caused a traffic jam as Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin and Luca Filippi among others were forced to come to a stop before the Holmatro Safety Crew could get the track cleared.
The race resumed after a six lap caution period. Daly brought the field down to the green flag as Montoya saw the opportunity to take the lead going into turn one and passed the young American on the inside. The Columbian built up a steady gap on Daly over the next 15 laps before Daly pitted on lap 80.
Daly made his final pitstop on lap 80 only to have to stop just a few laps later to replace the front wing on his #18 Honda/Dallara and to clean out the radiator intake, ending a stellar run for Daly.
Montoya and Pagenaud pitted together on lap 82, their final stops of the day.
The Columbian beat the Frenchman out of the pits and picked up where he left off leading a Team Penske 1-2-3 as Helio Castroneves rode calmly in third place. As the leaders navigated lapped traffic, Montoya developed a steering issue while Simon Pagenaud was unable to close as he tried to weave through the lapped cars of Alexander Rossi and Jack Hawksworth. Ryan Hunter-Reay spoiled the Penske party and put a bold move on Castroneves in turn 4 with three laps to go to take the position away.
Meanwhile, Pagenaud was unable to close on his teammate and Montoya took the checkered flag with 2.33s in the bank.
“It’s great to have race teammates because we race each other hard, but we give each other room,” said Montoya. “And everybody at Team Penske, Verizon and all our supporters, did an amazing job. I can’t thank them enough.”
Pagenaud ended the day in second place after leading the most laps (48). Hunter-Reay gave Honda something to smile about as he claimed the last step on the podium. Castroneves remained in fourth place while fifth place went to Mikhail Aleshin, who started deep in the field in 17th and ran a level headed race to claim a top five finish in his return to IndyCar.
Takuma Sato finished in sixth place followed by Scott Dixon, who ran in the top five much of the day but was forced to make an extended pit stop on lap 70 to clean out the radiator intake on his #9 Target Chevrolet. Carlos Munoz recovered from causing the pile up to finish eighth and was followed by Tony Kannan, the last car on the lead lap. Charlie Kimball went off track in turn one on the last lap and did not make it to the flag but was still credited with 10th place.
Other than collecting some minor damage on the lap 55 accident, Alexander Rossi’s debut IndyCar race was rather clean and ended the day as the leading rookie finishing in 12th place. Daly ended up an unlucky 13th place followed by 2015 Indy Lights champ Spencer Pigot.
Image: Josh Chin/Tribute Racing