ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Auto racing's version of the New York Yankees got off to a good start in its pennant race.
Team Penske scored a 1-3 finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with Will Power winning the opening race of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season and teammate Helio Castroneves claiming a podium finish. The powerful performance capped a week in which Team Penske president Tim Cindric unwittingly ramped up the unspoken rivalry between the legendary Penske organization and rival Chip Ganassi Racing by comparing Indy car racing's heavyweight teams to the New York Yankees and the Miami Marlins in a "USA Today" interview.
The Ganassi camp fought back with some strong words in the media from Dario Franchitti and Chip Ganassi himself. But on Sunday, it was all Penske as Power seized the lead from pole winner Takuma Sato on Lap 30 of 110 and was essentially unchallenged the rest of the way.
Power's only real problem came on a Lap 82 restart, when he said the flagman waved the green flag earlier than he expected, causing a traffic jam behind that cost Castroneves second place to Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Dating to last October in Houston, Power has now won three consecutive IndyCar Series races and could be on the verge of a monster season.
"We didn't quite have the pace in qualifying, but that's how you want to start the season," Power said. "Last year was horrible, and this year it's good to get a points lead.
"Man, I'm mentally tired," he added. "That was physical and hard, but I'm pretty stoked to get the first win for Verizon as the series sponsor with the Verizon car. Really happy with that, and that we executed well."
Power's race was keyed by Cindric's call to bring the Australian in for his first pit stop early to get him running in clean air. After being bottled up behind Hunter-Reay for the first 22 laps, Power reeled off a series of quick laps after his pit stop to make up about 5 seconds on Sato.
The Japanese driver stopped five laps later, and when he returned to the track, Power had leapfrogged Hunter-Reay and was right on the tail of Sato's A.J. Foyt Racing machine.
Sato made it difficult for Power to pass, but on Lap 30, the Penske driver pulled level under braking on the outside of Turn 1 and maintained the advantage through the switchback to the left.
"I've had that move done on me a couple times over the last couple of years, by Helio and by Dario, so I was glad to pull that one off," Power said.
The rap on Power is that he hasn't been able to finish off a championship, finishing second in the IndyCar standings in 2010, '11 and '12. Last year, his season got off to a horrible start, but he rebounded strongly with three late-year wins and carried the momentum forward into 2014.
"We came into the season wanting to win a championship for Roger, and the way it went down last year was really disappointing for Helio not to win," Power said. "We've been working really hard to get the car right. The field is so tight and I'm just happy we had a good race car today."
Cindric's baseball analogy between Penske and Ganassi carries some weight when discussing the Indianapolis 500, where Penske has won a record 15 times and Ganassi has three wins since 2008.
In terms of Indy car championships, Penske again sets the standard with 12. But the last one came in 2006, and Ganassi has amassed 10 championships since 1996.
Castroneves, who led the 2013 IndyCar championship for most of the season before faltering at the Houston doubleheader, reiterated that a championship is the No. 1 goal for the expanded Penske team this year. Juan Pablo Montoya battled handling problems and finished 15th for Penske on his Indy car racing return.
"Everyone wants to win a championship for Roger," Castroneves said. "We've come so close so many times since Sam [Hornish Jr.] won in 2006, and it's time to turn that thing around. We've all been working very hard toward that goal."
Ganassi's season got off to a low-key start. Tony Kanaan started on the front row in his debut for the team, but a gamble to start on standard Firestone tires didn't pay off and he ran sixth most of the race.
Scott Dixon qualified fifth and finished fourth on a track that has traditionally not been one of his best.
"Historically we haven't had the best start to the season here at St. Pete, but today we had a lot of fun and the Target team bringing two cars home without any damage to start off our year is a small win," said Dixon, the defending IndyCar Series champion.
"You never like to put yourself in a hole in the points early in the season and we avoided that," he added. "It would be nice to be up there on the podium, but after some of the races I've had here, I'm pretty satisfied with what we came away with."
By St. Pete standards, it was an unusually clean race, with the first full-course caution coming on Lap 76. The resultant restart is what caught Power out, causing an accordion effect that took in half a dozen cars and crashed out Marco Andretti and impressive rookie Jack Hawksworth.
Hunter-Reay stayed close to Power over the last 20 laps, but never had the speed to challenge for the lead.
On the heels of the Verizon title sponsorship announcement and with a network television audience to open the season, the IndyCar series needed a clean, professional race. That's what its drivers delivered.
And what was definitely the best team on this day won.