IndyCar thoughts: Montoya opens season in top form

IndyCar's 2016 season opened with a commanding win by Juan Pablo-Montoya, a headache for Penske Racing, and rookie Conor Daly's promise.
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Open-wheel racing is back in gear in the U.S., as the 2016 IndyCar season took the green flag on Sunday with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It was a vibrant and fitting spot for the occasion. Overhead shots of the cars streaking around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit alongside Tampa Bay echoed images of the Monaco Grand Prix. Of course, St. Pete may not be able to match the glamor quotient of Monte Carlo, but the event certainly suggested that this season’s 16-race IndyCar season will see far more competitive action than Formula 1 will over the next months. With IndyCar headed next to Phoenix on April 2, here are Three Thoughts out of Race 1:

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​• Juan Pablo Montoya knows how to open a show. Or at least a season. The 40-year-old Colombian won at St. Pete for the second year in a row. His victory here in 2015 had put him at the top of the points standings, a position he held all the way through the season until a tie-breaker after the final race gave the championship to Scott Dixon. This year Montoya appeared determined to pick right back up where he started last year. He passed Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud on a restart on Lap 57 and basically drove away from the field. Said Montoya, “Simon started pushing, so I pushed a little harder, and I opened the gap straight away.”

One gets the feeling that pushing a little harder is exactly the way JPM likes to drive—and it’s what we should expect to see throughout this season from the guy who has won in every discipline he has tried, from IndyCar to F1 to NASCAR and now back to Indy. Even a broken steering arm couldn’t slow Montoya over the latter stages of the race. “It was kind of like lock, lock and turn … but it was OK,” Montoya told USA Today’s Brant James. Winning races in the face of such challenges is the sign of a very complete driver and a very well-managed team. It certainly bodes well for JPM’s championship aspirations.

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Penske has the power. If not—to repeat the pun made by virtually every motor sports writer this weekend—the Power. Even with former Series champion and team No. 1 Will Power sidelined from the race due to the after effects of a mild concussion, the perennial, er, powerhouse finished 1-2-4, with Montoya, Pagenaud and Helio Castronves, respectively. This after the four had swept the top qualifying spots, with Power earning the pole. (His replacement, Oriol Servia, would go on to finish 18th on Sunday after getting caught up in an eight-car accident on Lap 57—an incident that completely blocked the track with crumpled race cars.) For Team Penske, which is marking its 50th season in racing and owns a record 179 wins in open-wheel competition, it was an auspicious but also expected opener to the season. (Penske holds eight victories in the last 12 St. Pete races.) “It was a great team effort,” said Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. Still, for all those wins, the team has only one championship—Powers’s in 2014—in the last decade. And with Power starting with what amounts to a 50-point deficit after missing Sunday’s race, he’ll be playing catch-up from here on out.

Good Daly news. As in Conor Daly. The 24-year-old rookie, making just his seventh IndyCar start, showed he has the skill and the temperament to make a successful run in his first full-time season. No surprise, as his father, Derek, was a longtime CART and F1 driver—and the author of a book called Race to Win, which presumably young Conor has read. Thanks to some pit strategy that put Daly and his Dale Coyne Racing Honda back out on the track ahead of the Penske pack, the rookie of the year favorite led the race for 15 laps, before Montoya passed him under braking after a restart on Lap 64. Even then, Daly held his own, lapping close to the reigning Indy 500 champion. In the end, though, Daly wound up 14th  after getting clipped by Carlos Munoz while coming out of the pits. Still, it was an exciting start to the season for Daly and his team—as well as for racing fans eager for new faces in the Series.  For his part, the young star professed the day a success. “I just kept learning the whole race,” he said. “To follow Montoya? You don’t get a much better instructor than that.” Hmm, one wonders what the Old Man might say to that.