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Juan Pablo Montoya wins Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

If Juan Pablo Montoya's victory in last year's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was a confidence boost after a rough 2014, Sunday's showing in the IndyCar season opener provided a different kind of statement.

Montoya remains a world-class driver and a championship contender.

The 40-year-old Colombian led 44 of the final 47 laps and held off Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud to cruise to his second Grand Prix victory and his 15th career IndyCar win.

"To come back here after being down and start the season with a win again is to show everybody we're here," Montoya said.

RELATED: Complete coverage of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, including a photo gallery

And judging by Sunday's result, neither Montoya nor his Penske teammates are going anywhere.

Even with Penske pole-sitter Will Power sidelined with a mild concussion, the team earned its eighth Grand Prix win in the past 12 years. Only Ryan Hunter-Reay's late pass on Helio Castroneves kept Penske from sweeping the top three spots.

"That was a small, tiny, little victory for us ..." Hunter-Reay said of his third-place finish. "They've been the class of the field here for many years."

They certainly were this weekend; they qualified 1-2-3-4 Saturday and led 92 of the 110 laps around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course.

Pagenaud's No. 22 Chevrolet opened up a five-second lead on the field early. Montoya sat back and saved fuel until Marco Andretti caused the first caution with a risky (and unsuccessful) attempt to pass Luca Filippi.

Rookie Conor Daly inherited the lead with an unconventional pit strategy, but Montoya showed himself as the car to beat when his No. 2 Chevy sped around Pagenaud for third after the restart and staved off his teammate's attempt to charge back.

"Montoya is an old dog," Pagenaud said. "He found a little good trick on me."

That trick ended up keeping Montoya ahead of Pagenaud for good, but it was quickly overshadowed by an eight-car pileup in Turn 4. Carlos Munoz collided with Graham Rahal, who didn't even have enough time to finish his unhappy hand gesture at Munoz before he was hit again.

Montoya gained the lead on the restart on lap 64 when he darted inside Daly heading into the first corner. The only drama after that centered on whether Montoya could survive his own self-inflicted trouble.

He bruised his hand and damaged his steering after he wrecked into the tires during the morning warmup. The problem worsened during the race, and Montoya had to jolt the wheel more than 90 degrees to turn right.

"Pretty stupid," Montoya said.

Montoya admitted he was worried. But it didn't matter, because he was also winning and trying to earn another confidence-boosting victory here.

Montoya was fourth-to-last here in 2014 and entered last year's Grand Prix with only one podium finish on road/street courses the year before. But leading 27 laps and claiming the checkered flag proved that seven mostly mediocre seasons in the NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series didn't diminish his ability to dominate IndyCar.

"He really struggled here the first year. He questioned a lot of things," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. "I think it gave him a lot of confidence going into the season — hey, this is a different year."

That year ended in disaster when a collision in the season finale spoiled his shot at winning the series title. But when Montoya arrived this month, he had moved on from the disappointment of 2015 and was ready to reestablish himself as the car to beat.

"To start the year with a win, it's like, oh, I got that one out of the way," Montoya said.

With probably a few more still to come.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Juan Pablo Montoya wins Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 03/13/16 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2016 7:24am]
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