After what began as a frustrating start to race day in St. Petersburg for Team Penske, it ended in a much more positive fashion as the squad finished 1-2 in the Firestone Grand Prix for the second year in a row, with Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya crossing the finish line first to successfully defend his race win from one year ago.
It was far from a joyride though for Montoya, who managed to break free from his teammate Simon Pagenaud in the closing laps, despite the fact his No. 2 Verizon Wireless Chevrolet suffered a broken steering arm five laps from the finish. Although he lost some of his cushion on the Frenchman while clearing traffic, Montoya regained the edge when a collision in front of Pagenaud with four laps to go in turn one gave back the time he had relinquished. Pagenaud, who started from the pole position on Sunday, led the most laps on Sunday with 45, but still had to settle for second behind Montoya, with a final difference of 2.6 seconds after 11o laps.
While Chevrolet dominated the majority of the race and claimed five of the first six spots in the Firestone Fast Six qualifying on Saturday, Honda appears to have made some progress as Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay completed the podium in third place. The American was the most competitive on the Firestone option red tires throughout Sunday’s race and used to it maximum benefit when he overtook Helio Castroneves for the final place on the podium three laps from the finish. The effort was a solid comeback for the 2014 Indy 500 champion, whose race was nearly brought to an early end near the halfway point when he made hard contact with Dale Coyne Racing’s Luca Filippi approaching turn ten.
Despite being unable to complete a Team Penske sweep of the podium, Castroneves held on to claim fourth place at the finish, even though he struggled for grip in the early and late stages of the event, losing the same amount of time Hunter-Reay had gained on the option reds. Rounding out the first five, was an equally strong run completed by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin, who came from 17th at the start of Sunday’s race. The Russian, who is back on the circuit full time after competing only in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway a season ago, gained the majority of his ground as the result of a nine-car pileup in the tight turn four section of the 1.8 mile circuit. The accident came after a restart when Carlos Munoz attempted a late overtaking maneuver on Graham Rahal, resulting in contact and blocking the track for several drivers behind them. Aleshin was one of the first stranded drivers to get back underway, greatly improving his position.
Despite triggering the accident and receiving a drive through penalty afterwards from new IndyCar Chief Steward Dan Davis for avoidable contact, Munoz managed to salvage an eighth place finish, while Rahal came home in 18th.
While Team Penske had a strong effort with three in the top four, their archrivals from Chip Ganassi Racing suffered from overheating problems with all four of their cars late in the race and were only able to place two drivers in the top ten, led by Charlie Kimball in seventh and defending series champion Scott Dixon in ninth.
Sunday also could have been viewed as a what might have been day for Dale Coyne Racing’s Conor Daly, who used clever pit strategy to move from 20th at the start to the race lead for 15 laps around the halfway point. With the extended yellow period due to the pileup putting the Indiana-resident on the same pit sequence as the leaders, the possibility of a great result, if not a win was in play. Although Daly lost the lead to Montoya on the race’s final restart, the Honda driver held his own in second place until the final round of pit stops began. Unfortunately, things would turn sour as a slow pit stop, followed by contact on track that forced an additional pit stop knocked him out of contention. Daly would finish 13th.
However, the biggest pre-race news was off the track as Saturday’s Verizon P1 Award Will Power was replaced by Oriol Servia before the green flag on Sunday morning. Although his physical condition was initially declared uninjured and okay to drive by the IndyCar medical team after suffering a crash on Friday morning, Power complained of inner-ear difficulties, which were later diagnosed as concussion-like symptoms. With rules precluding drivers with such maladies from driving, Team Penske replaced Power with Servia for the morning warm-up and the race itself. Starting from the back of the pack, the Spaniard moved up to 11th place before he was involved in the major pileup and finished 17th. With the Verizon IndyCar Series racing in three weeks time at the one-mail Phoenix International Raceway oval, Power will be re-evaluated by series doctors, but must be cleared before being allowed to race.
Stay tuned to OnPitRoad.com for continued coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series.