Will Power clearly had the car to beat in today’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and the Team Penske pilot made it count en route to taking the checkered flag in the season-opening race for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
Power took the lead from pole sitter Takuma Sato with an outside pass in Turn 1 on Lap 31, and basically never looked back on the way to not only his second career win in St. Pete but also the fourth win in his last six races dating back to last season.
The Australian ended the 2013 season on a tear with wins last fall at Sonoma, Race 2 of the Houston doubleheader, and the season finale at Fontana. That late-season surge made him a title pick of many observers going into 2014, and he’s living up to the billing so far.
However, Power’s win didn’t come without controversy. After an extended caution, Power was set to lead the field to a restart with 28 laps remaining. But instead of accelerating, Power appeared to slow down.
The field proceeded to stack up behind him, and in the process, Jack Hawksworth tagged another car from behind before skidding into the inside wall of the frontstretch, collecting Marco Andretti.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Marco’s team owner and father, Michael Andretti, put the blame on Power, while Team Penske’s Tim Cindric said that Power told him the green flag had been thrown earlier than he expected.
Additionally, TV replays showed that Power had not yet reached the restart cone when the field began to stack up.
After the cleanup, Power held the lead on the next restart with 23 laps to go. Ryan Hunter-Reay managed to get past Helio Castroneves for second in Turn 1, but the American was unable to reel in Power during the closing laps and finished 1.9 seconds back. Castroneves settled for third and the last spot on the podium.
In Victory Lane, Power re-iterated his claim that the green had been thrown early on him.
“I thought we were meant to go in that [restart zone],” he explained to ESPN’s Jamie Little. “So, I was surprised. I don’t even know what happened behind me! What happened?”
When Little explained the accident that occurred between Hawksworth and Andretti, Power responded: “I lifted a little. I didn’t touch the break at all. You can take a look at my data – I did not touch the brake.”
As for what his peers thought about the matter, opinions were mixed. Notably, Power’s teammate Castroneves thought that things were “a little strange” on the first restart.
“[Power] was being very tricky for sure, and I understand,” said Castroneves. “It was too slow on the first one and on the second one, obviously, he played a little bit. I got hung out to dry and Hunter-Reay took advantage of it [for second].”
However, defending series champion Scott Dixon, who finished fourth, believed the ill-fated restart wasn’t Power’s fault.
“I don’t think Will did anything wrong – they moved the restart zone late this morning in warmup, so I think he was probably a little slow, if anything,” Dixon said.
“But I think sometimes, it’s just people being too greedy, man. They’ve got to come down hard on that so nobody tries to take advantage by jumping a few spots early on.”
Simon Pagenaud, also a trendy choice for the 2014 championship, came home fifth ahead of Tony Kanaan, who finished sixth in his first race for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
Sato converted his pole into a Top-10 finish with a seventh, and was followed by Justin Wilson in eighth, Josef Newgarden in ninth (after starting last on the grid), and Ryan Briscoe in 10th.
As for former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to open-wheel racing, it was not an altogether pleasant one.
Montoya, who is coming off a seven-year run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was not a factor during the 110-lap race and finished 15th in a day he’ll likely chalk up as a learning experience.
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action on Sunday, April 13 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. You can watch it live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra starting at 4 p.m. ET.
FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG
1. 12-Will Power
2. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay
3. 3-Helio Castroneves
4. 9-Scott Dixon
5. 77-Simon Pagenaud
6. 10-Tony Kanaan
7. 14-Takuma Sato
8. 19-Justin Wilson
9. 67-Josef Newgarden
10. 8-Ryan Briscoe
11. 17-Sebastian Saavedra
12. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (R)
13. 11-Sebastien Bourdais
14. 15-Graham Rahal
15. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya
16. 20-Mike Conway
17. 34-Carlos Munoz (R)
18. 18-Carlos Huertas (R)
19. 27-James Hinchcliffe, one lap down
20. 83-Charlie Kimball, two laps down
21. 98-Jack Hawksworth (R), Lap 83, Contact
22. 25-Marco Andretti, Lap 82, Contact