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MONTOYA WINS AT ST. PETE FOR THE SECOND STRAIGHT YEAR
Author: Mark W. Theisen
March 13th 2016 -      WEST BEND, Wisconsin March 13th, 2016:     The 2016 Verizon IndyCar series kicked off today with the 13th running of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida and the end result was the same as last year as Juan Pablo Montoya, in a Team Penske Chevrolet powered Dallara chassis won by 2.3306 seconds over one of his three Penske Racing teammates, Simon Pagenaud.

    Montoya, who returned to IndyCar racing last year with Team Penske won for the 15th time in IndyCar racing and has set to out to avenge his 2015 championship loss to Scott Dixon on a tie-breaker in the season finale at Sonoma, California last summer.
 
   The 2016 edition of the Verizon sponsored series will feature 21 regular entries vying for the season championship along with additional cars that are entered at specific venues along the way.  Today’s Firestone Grand Prix featured 22 entries but it was the cars from Team Penske that garnered all the major headlines this weekend in Florida.

     Will Power in his Verizon sponsored number 12 was fastest in spring practice sessions leading up to the opening weekend as was fastest in practice at St. Pete until he spun and hit the wall in a Friday afternoon practice session.  Power emerged from the car with no signs of injury but was evaluated and cleared by the IndyCar medical team.  Data from onboard instruments that measure information pertaining to the crash also indicated no further evaluation was needed.

     His crew rebuilt the car and Power quickly broke his old track records in the first two qualifying rounds and was able to win the pole in the third round for the sixth time in his nine career races at St. Petersburg.

    However it was not all good for Power as he complained of nausea the entire qualifying session and after learning of his symptoms he was required to submit to another evaluation by IndyCar at which point he was diagnosed with a mild concussion.  Power was then entered into IndyCar’s concussion protocol and will need to be re-evaluated prior to being cleared to drive.  Team Penske then hired veteran IndyCar driver, Oriol Servia, to pilot Power’s car in the race.

     Servia had to start last in the race due to the river switch and was caught up in a lap 57 multi car accident that saw him finish 18th, still on the lead lap but not among the race leaders.

      Penske cars finished one through 4th in qualifying and Pagenaud, by virtue of being second after the final qualifying session started the 110 lap race on the pole and held the first 48 laps of the race.

     Lucca Filippi and Marco Andretti made contact in turn one of the 46th lap for the first caution of the race, with both drivers being able to continue on in the race.

     Then with the field bunched up for the restart, the cars of Helio Castroneves and Dixon made slight contact on lap 57 and they were able to right themselves and continue on.  However, behind them, Carlos Munoz ran into the rear of Graham Rahal with the end result being nearly 10 cars blocking the track until safety personal were able to arrive on the scene and gets the cars going in the right direction again.  6 laps were lost on this second caution.

     The race continued to the end with no further cautions and the two full-course yellows tied a St. Petersburg record for the fewest in a race.  One remembers last year’s event which saw the debut of the new aero kits in race form with many cautions flying as a result of pieces following off the new and untested cars.

     Rookie Conor Daly, driving for Dale Coyne Racing Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality led a career best 15 laps midway through the event while on an alternate pit strategy but it was Montoya and his crew that came up with them best strategy and with quick pit work and a fast car Montoya proved untouchable from the mid-point of the race until the end despite Ryan Hunter-Reay lading 3 laps during a pit stop cycle from laps 82 through 84.

     With that late pit stop strategy Hunter-Reay was able to break up the Team Penske parade and brought his Honda powered Andretti Autosport entry home in third. 

     Castroneves recovered from his brush with Dixon to finish 4th while Mikhail Aleshin finished 5th in a Schmidt Peterson Honda.

    Takuma Sato in an A.J. Foyt Racing Honda was 6th with Dixon taking seventh to open his title defense.  Munoz, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball rounded out the top 10 of which 6 were Chevrolet powered and 4 of which Honda were Honda driven.

     “Our Verizon Chevy was great,” said Montoya and I want to thank everybody on the team and all of our supporters because they all do an amazing job.  You know, we started the year last year like this and I thought this morning that we had a really good car and it paid off.”

     Montoya was questioned if how he lost the title last year had turned into a new determination to win it this year.  “No, last year we did what we had to do and it just didn’t happen.  This year, we came here not thinking about what was and just tried to be as fast as possible and see what result that brings, and today it worked.  That’s our focus with each and every event and the championships will come with all that in perspective.”

     Pagenaud, who was recruited to drive for Penske last year and went winless and was on the cusp of his first victory for the team was still upbeat after the race.  “When you give and inch to him (Montoya) he is going to take it.  I lost my track position to him when racing another car and had to lift because that car took all the aero out and that is when Juan got his run and that was pretty much it” said Pagenaud.  At the end of the day, when you look back on last year and you look where we are now it was awesome.  This is a great start to the season.”

     Hunter-Reay was very pleased with his start after a somewhat lethargic 2015 in which the former series champion and Indy 500 winner won twice but was also bogged down by the underperforming Honda at times.  “As an engine and kit supplier Honda has made great strides for 2016,” said Hunter-Reay, “while, we, as a team at Andretti Autosport, have also made many improvements.  We still lack that straight-away speed that Chevrolet has had but we are gaining on them and it is refreshing to break up their sweep of the podium here today.”

      Montoya’s 15th career Indy car win ties him with Alex Zanardi for31t on the career chart.  It was also the 179th victory for Team Penske in Indy car racing, the most of any team in history and eighth win for Penske in the 13 St. Petersburg events.

     The Firestone Grand Prix saw four rookie drivers make their starts with Alexander Rossi, a veteran of Formula One racing, finishing 12th in his Andretti Autosports/Curb Records Honda.  Daly came home 13th followed by Spencer Pigot in his Rahal Letterman Lannigan Racing Honda in a deal that will see him return for the two races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.  Max Chilton, made his IndyCar debut for Ganassi Racing finishing in 17th after staring 8th.  Pigot’s car was the 22nd starter on the grid today whereas most of the events this year will see 21 regular entries. 

     The series now moves on to Phoenix International Raceway, where for the first time in 11 years, the series makes its return to track.  The event will run under the lights on April 2nd with qualifying on April 1st.  NBCSN will televise the race live at 8:30 p.m. ET on the 2nd.

INDY 500 NOTES

     The countdown to the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is well underway with the Indianapolis Star running daily features of past winners and events that comprise the fabled history of the race and the track.  It is must reading whether you get the newspaper or on line.  The stories and terrific.

     As far as entries and the coveted 33 starting field, what we have so far is what we had last year.  Both Chevrolet and Honda are contracted to provide 17 engine programs, each, for the 500.  That leaves us with 34 entire and now sponsorship and drive deals have to come together to arrive at that number.

     Chevrolet has the four Penske cars and four at Ganassi.  KVSH has Sebastien Bourdais in a one car Chevrolet effort for the season and Mathew Brabham for the two Indianapolis races including the 500.  Ed Carpenter has Josef Newgarden for the season and himself for the 500 which would leave Chevrolet with 12 of its 17 engines contracted for with just over two months until the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500.

      Honda as three engine deals in place at Andretti with a fourth going to Rossi in a partnership deal with Bryan Herta Autosport.  Michael Andretti, team owner has said an additional car is not only possible but it is likely but no driver has been named as sponsorship deals are sought.  A.J. Foyt Racing has Sato and Jack Hawksworth for the season and has indicated a third car will be at Indy.  Dale Coyne Racing has Pippa Mann and Bryan Clauson confirmed for the 500 for now.  Schmidt Peterson has James Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly and Mikhail Aleshin for the 500.  Rahal Letterman Lannigan has Graham in their regular car and Pigot for the 500.  Thusly, confirmed are 14 of the 17 engine deals with Foyt’s third car bringing the number to 15

     Buddy Lazier has indicated he will return for 2016 after being the 34th fastest driver last year and was unable to make the race.  He had a Chevrolet last year.  Sage Karam has been announced at Dryer Reinbold Racing with no engine supplier listed.

     So we have what seems to be 29 entries of the 34 possibilities announced.  I can’t see where the likes of Foyt, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and Schmidt letting the 100th come off with less than 33 cars because the engine deals are there and the list of available drivers is formidable. The sponsorship dollars still seem to be what is dragging the entry list from being completed.  Stay tuned.