Montoya makes it back-to-back St. Petersburg wins

The 50th anniversary celebration season for Team Penske is off to a rousing start. Verizon Team Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya controlled the closing laps of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to win the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener for the second straight year.

Driving the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, Montoya led teammate Simon Pagenaud across the finish line by 2.3306 seconds, with Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay placing third and Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves fourth on the 1.8-mile temporary street course.

Montoya’s 15th career Indy car win ties him with Alex Zanardi for 31st on the career chart. It is also the 179th victory for Team Penske in Indy car racing, the most of any team in history, and eighth for Roger Penske’s outfit in the 13-race St. Petersburg history.

“It was good,” said Montoya, who lost the 2015 series championship on a race wins tiebreaker to Scott Dixon. “The Chevy was good all day. It was exciting to have a new paint scheme (on his car) and come out and win with it. It’s just awesome. We started the year last year like this. I felt this morning we had a really good car and it paid off.”

Pagenaud, in the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, started from the pole position and led 48 laps of the 110-lap race. The Frenchman’s second-place finish was his best in four starts on the St. Petersburg street course, but he lamented Montoya passing him on Lap 64 as the turning point.

“Overall it was a great day,” Pagenaud said. “If you compare to last year, it’s been a massive improvement on the whole 22 crew. I’m super proud to represent HPE in our first race and be here on the podium in second place, leading the race for a while.

“But, yeah, Montoya is an old dog. He found a little good trick on me. I made one tiny little mistake and it lost me the race.”

The only thing missing from Team Penske’s race domination was Will Power, who took ill after claiming the Verizon P1 Award for winning the pole position March 12. Upon re-examination by the INDYCAR medical team this morning, Power was diagnosed with a mild concussion. INDYCAR released the following statement:

“Following his on-track incident on Friday, Will Power displayed no signs of injury and was evaluated and cleared by the INDYCAR medical team. Per INDYCAR protocol, we also evaluated the data collected from his ear accelerometers, which provides data specific to the impact on a driver’s head, and nothing gathered from that data indicated further evaluation was required.

“After learning of Will’s symptoms following qualifications Saturday, he was required to submit to another evaluation by INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows, at which point he was diagnosed with a mild concussion. Power has been entered into INDYCAR’s concussion protocol and will need to be re-evaluated prior to being cleared to drive.”

Power was replaced in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet by Oriol Servia, who started last in the 22-car field by rule. Servia was involved in a mid-race multi-car pileup and finished 18th.

Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Conor Daly led a career-best 15 laps midway through the event while on an alternate pit strategy. Daly, driving the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda for Dale Coyne Racing, finished 13th.

The race saw just two full-course yellow conditions, tying a St. Pete record for fewest in a race. One yellow was due to a multi-car logjam triggered when the cars of Castroneves and Dixon touched but kept going. Behind them, the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda of Carlos Munoz ran into the rear of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Steak ‘n Shake Honda of Graham Rahal on Lap 57. Nearly 10 cars blocked the track until the Holmatro Safety Team could clear a path for them to rejoin the action.

The next race on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Phoenix Grand Prix on April 1-2. It marks the series’ return to Phoenix International Raceway following an 11-year absence with the April 2 race under the lights (NBCSN, 8:30 p.m. ET).

Dolphins QB Tannehill joins friend Hunter-Reay at St. Pete

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill became friends with Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay through their wives since both families are South Florida residents. The racing Ryan invited the pigskin-throwing Ryan to the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, allowing Tannehill a chance to ride on the Honda Fastest Seat in Sports two-seater with Indy car legend Mario Andretti at the wheel to pace the field before the race.

“It’s a unique experience,” Tannehill said prior to climbing into the passenger seat. “You can’t really grasp how cool it is until you’re part of it. To be with a legend like Mario and his career that he had, being able to go around the track at speed, it’s a unique experience and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Tannehill spent race eve meeting with Hunter-Reay and his crew. It gave the quarterback a new appreciation of the teamwork involved, just as in football.

“We were at the truck last night and I met his engineers and his mechanics,” Tannehill said. “Just the work that these guys put in getting the car ready to go and perform at peak performance, you don’t realize how much goes into it. I can appreciate that from my aspect.

“Most people don’t realize how much work that football players put in, so definitely a lot of parallels (between football and racing) and you can see the hard work pay off.”

Special crew formed for TAG Heuer Pit Stop Competition

PIRTEK Team Murray and the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation have created a unique program that will see six military service veterans and first responders from across North America form a pit crew for this year’s TAG Heuer Pit Stop Competition during Miller Lite Carb Day, in conjunction with the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The announcement was made today at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by team owner Brett Murray, along with Taya Kyle, the widow of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and executive director of the foundation.
The first crew member named was David Rutherford, a former Navy SEAL from Boca Raton, Fla., now serving as a motivational speaker.

“We’ll be using plenty of SEAL Team thinking come the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Competition on May 27 and I think that, with the team we are putting together with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and the support of the military community on that Memorial Day weekend, we can be unstoppable,” Rutherford said.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment worked with Team Murray and the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation to create the concept. WBHE will use the pit crew program to launch “American Sniper: The Chris Kyle Commemorative Edition” on Blu-ray on May 3.

Rookie driver Matt Brabham will drive the No. 61 PIRTEK Team Murray Chevrolet in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 14 and the 100th Indianapolis 500 on May 29. The honorary pit crew, called the CK Crew, will participate as the team’s entry in the pit stop competition May 27 and serve as backups for the regular crew on Indy 500 race day.

The pit crew will be housed in Indianapolis for 10 days leading up to the event and be trained and coached by some of the sport’s leading fitness and movement professionals, including Pit Fit’s Jim Leo. Additional crew members will be named soon.

“I am sure the six members of the CK Crew and their partners will have an experience they will never forget, but also the hundreds of other worthy recipients we intend to involve around the country,” Taya Kyle said. “It is a great chance for supporters of the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, our military and first responders to get involved as a donor to the CK Crew.

“Not only will they have an awesome experience right across the Indy 500 weekend, their donations will allows us to assist many families that have done so much to support and serve our country over many years.

Bucs DL McCoy honored to be St. Pete grand marshal

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Gerald McCoy is serving as grand marshal for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The four-time Pro Bowler and team captain met four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in the Chip Ganassi Racing garage in the paddock for a jersey exchange. He also met team owner Roger Penske for an exchange on the grid prior to the race.

“When they asked me to be grand marshal, I said, ‘Sure I can do that,'” McCoy said. “Now that I’m here, I’m like, ‘They picked me to do this?’ It’s an honor to be here and a lot of fun.”

McCoy got an up-close look at the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet before signing his jersey to Dixon.

“It’s fun to meet these guys, especially football players, and talk about their training and what they do, their seasons and what they do in the offseason,” Dixon said. “You can tell they have a great work ethic and love their jobs. It’s very similar to (Verizon IndyCar Series drivers).”

Rosenqvist gets redemption with Indy Lights win

Felix Rosenqvist erased the disappointment of the prior day’s race with a wire-to-wire win in today’s second half of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires doubleheader to open the 2016 season. Rosenqvist led both practices March 11, but his hopes for a win in the first race were dashed when the car was stuck in rain mode, allowing the car to only run at 70 percent power and relegating him to a seventh-place finish.

Rosenqvist’s second race was only briefly hindered on Lap 27 as he navigated lapped traffic. It allowed Kyle Kaiser to briefly close to within a second of the No. 14 Belardi Auto Racing Dallara IL-15. Rosenqvist cleared the traffic a few laps later and rebuilt his lead to a healthy 4.36 seconds by the checkered flag.

“Being new in the series, you can’t really expect too much, but when we came here this weekend, it was the first time that we could really see where we were at pace-wise and we were just right out there from the beginning,” Rosenqvist said.

“Yesterday was just a big disappointment due to a screw-up on our side, but you just learn everything in time, make sure we didn’t make any mistakes today and everything just felt perfect.”

In the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires race that closed weekend race activities, Team Pelfrey completed a podium sweep with Aaron Telitz winning by 2.7788 seconds over Pato O’Ward and Weiron Tan finishing third. O’Ward won the first Pro Mazda race of the weekend on March 12.