Montoya's win may work for all

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Maybe what the Verizon IndyCar Series needs is for a dominant personality to step up. Someone who crushes the field not just on the track, but psyches the other drivers out in the process and makes them believe they're all battling for second place.

Parity and close racing haven't moved the needle for IndyCar in recent years. What if a brash star emerges whom the public can't ignore?

Why not Juan Pablo Montoya? Back in 1999, he won seven races and the CART-sanctioned Indy car championship as an insouciant 23-year-old rookie.

Now a seasoned veteran with experience in Formula One and NASCAR -- and perhaps more importantly, one year of seat time back in a very different form of Indy car racing than the one he left 15 years ago -- Montoya is every bit as big a threat to win the IndyCar Series championship as any of his three Team Penske teammates.

On Sunday, they finished 1-2-4-5 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, with Montoya leading the charge after beating defending IndyCar Series champion Will Power in a straight fight.

The Penske group swept the first two rows of the starting grid, and if not for a gutsy performance by Chip Ganassi Racing's Tony Kanaan, would have finished 1-2-3-4 in Penske's first race as a four-car team.

Preseason testing suggested that it could be a year of Penske dominance. The question was which driver would prevail.

On the streets of St. Petersburg, Montoya drew first blood. Dropping to fifth early in the race, he methodically worked his way back to second, then took the lead with 18 laps to go when leader Power had a slow final pit stop caused by a faulty air jack.

Power caught the Colombian with 10 to go, but his admittedly optimistic move for the lead ended with a broken front-wing end plate and a quiet word of warning from Penske Racing president Tim Cindric to bring it home rather than crash it away.

"It was great to see the Montoya of old out there, winning on a street course," Cindric said. "He had to drive his way to the front. You pretty much know the contact is coming; you just want to know if they can keep running or not and fortunately they kept running.

"I'm happy for Montoya and it's a solid finish for us."

Montoya finished fourth in the IndyCar standings in 2014 in his return to open-wheel cars after nearly eight years racing NASCAR stock cars. He struggled to adapt to the new, rear-heavy Indy cars and the red-sidewall alternate Firestone tires that are a key part of race strategy these days.

He won the Pocono 500, but knew that a championship run would have to wait a year. Now he's in position to make that run.

"It's a good way to start the year," Montoya said. "We worked really hard in the offseason preparing for this. We wanted to hit the ground running, but I felt like I left a bit out there in qualifying.

"Today, our car was unbelievable," he added. "It was fast and it was fun. We just push each other so hard, and that makes it fun. To win on a street course after my performance last year, I'm like 'Oh yeah!'"

Montoya built his lead to 3.8 seconds, but Power took less than 10 laps to cut it to nothing. The Australian said he believed Montoya was likely to wear out his alternate Firestones in the 30-lap final stint, but catching up is one thing and passing is another.

It was a nail-biting moment for the Penske organization when Power made his move on the run to Turn 10 at the end of the back straight. The slight contact nudged Montoya's car sideways but he controlled the slide and pulled away to win by 0.993 of a second.

"[Power] was optimistic, but he was racing," Montoya said. "They told me he was on the [push-to-pass] button, but he wasn't close enough. A lot of people back off when they do that, but I braked as late as I could. I turned where I needed to turn and I knew we were going to touch, but I left him enough room.

"It was a good chance for him and he had to go and give it a try. He wouldn't make it easy for me either."

Power gave his all in his first race carrying the champion's No. 1, but had to settle for second behind Montoya's No. 2 car.

"It was kind of optimistic, but it was possible," Power said of his attempted pass. "If he gave me some more room, I would have taken it, but he did what anyone would have done.

"I thought it would catch him off guard, because you don't expect somebody to use push to pass there," he added. "I gave it a shot and it was tight -- I was surprised how aggressively he turned. But he wanted to win the race and so did I."

Behind Kanaan in third place, Penske's Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud completed the top five as Chevrolet swept the first six places in the first race in which the IndyCar Series engine manufacturers ran their own unique bodywork on the standardized central Dallara chassis.

"Great drive by Montoya, great pit stops by his team, and I'm so proud of all of Team Chevy," said Jim Campbell, General Motors' U.S vice president for performance vehicles and motorsports. "There was a lot of offseason preparation, teamwork and testing and it all paid off today by sweeping the top six."

Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2012 IndyCar Series champion, was Honda's top finisher in seventh place but believed the result wasn't as bad as it looked.

"That was the hardest-fought seventh place I've ever had," Hunter-Reay said. "But that's how it is some days and when you have a bad day it's good to bring home a solid top-10. We rebounded nicely after dropping back at the start, but sixth or seventh place was about all the car we had today.

"We've got some work to do," he continued. "The thing is howling on the straight, we just need to get it through the corners."

And even the best of the rest of the Chevrolet drivers couldn't keep up with Penske's rapid foursome. Kanaan split the Penske drivers and finished on the podium for Ganassi but wasn't under any illusions after a serious drubbing.

"They were on another planet today," Kanaan admitted. "We had to work extremely hard to keep up with them."

With Team Penske running four cars and four top-line drivers for the first time in the legendary team's 48-year history in Indy car racing, Roger Penske may be in line for a season even more successful than 1994, when his trio of Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy won 12 of 16 races and finished 1-2-3 in the CART championship.

"As we thought it would be, it's going to a battle between teammates for the championship, for sure," said Power.