ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Preparations for the IndyCar Series opener began with a silly spat between the two top organizations over a perceived slight made by the president of Team Penske.
The dig — Tim Cindric compared Penske to the New York Yankees and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing to the Miami Marlins — irritated the Ganassi camp and created some drama heading into the race Sunday.
When the checkered flag waived, it was Penske driver Will Power in the winner’s circle. With teammate Helio Castroneves finishing third, Team Penske drivers claimed two spots on the podium and fired the opening salvo in the rivalry.
“I’ve only heard a little bit of that story, so I haven’t paid much attention,” Power said. “Are the Marlins good? Do they win?”
Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon, the defending series champion, finished fourth and Tony Kanaan was sixth in his debut for the team.
So with Verizon-sponsored driver Power on top of the podium in the first race with Verizon on board as the series sponsor, and Castroneves on the podium with him, round one easily went to Team Penske.
“We don’t want to give an inch this year,” said Castroneves, who lost the championship to Dixon last season. “We don’t want to give any opportunity. We want to give the championship to Roger no matter what it takes.”
Ganassi has won five of the last six championships, and Penske last won in 2006.
It was fitting that the win went to Power, who picked up right where he left off last season. He won three of the final five IndyCar races last season — including the last two — and his Sunday win at St. Pete gives the Australian four out of the last six victories.
Power passed pole-sitter Takuma Sato for the lead with an outside move headed into the second turn on Lap 31, and was never really challenged again. He had to beat Castroneves off pit lane during stops under caution, and the only hiccup was on the first restart of the race.
He was the leader and was slow to restart the field with 28 laps remaining. It caused traffic to stack-up behind him and led to a crash involving rookie Jack Hawksworth and Marco Andretti.
Andretti got out of his car with a limp and was favoring his wrist following the accident.
“It’s hard to see because I was pretty far back, but Will just stopped. Once you go, you gotta go,” he said. “It looked like an accordion effect. I had a good restart going, but we were junk all day, so what are you going to do?”
Hawksworth blamed the accident on the leaders stopping at the front of the field.
“We went when they said green, and all of a sudden the leaders stopped. I don’t know what was going on at the front,” the rookie said.
Power said he never braked and was confused because the field went green earlier than it should.
“They actually threw the green before I was even in the (restart) zone, so it was confusing to me,” Power said.
Castroneves didn’t buy Power’s version and said he was fooled by his teammate.
“Will and I know each other for a long time. He knows my tricks,” Castroneves said. “I didn’t quite know that trick from him, and he got me.”
IndyCar said the restart in question was acceptable, but race control did review Power’s second restart and issued him a warning for going too early. He was not penalized, but IndyCar said he will be if he does it again.
Juan Pablo Montoya finished 15th in his return to IndyCar for the first time since he left for Formula One following his Indianapolis 500 win in 2000. He spent almost five seasons in F1 and seven in NASCAR before returning to open-wheel with Roger Penske.
“I think it went pretty good,” he said. “We will learn and pass some people and some people passed us. There are a few things we have to do better, but I didn’t feel my pace was too bad there at the end. It’s going to be a lot of work but I am very excited.”