After last year's rough debut here and a slow start Sunday in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Juan Pablo Montoya was ready to settle for a solid points day and an incident-free run.
Two hours later, he was back on the winner's podium at an IndyCar street course for the first time in 16 years.
The 39-year-old Colombian held off teammate Will Power to lead Team Penske's dominant day by winning the IndyCar series' season opener.
"Everything just clicked," said Montoya, who won his second IndyCar race since returning to the series last year after seven NASCAR seasons.
For most of the race, Montoya was patient and kept his No. 2 Chevrolet in the middle of Penske's stranglehold at the top.
Penske's four drivers led all but five of the 110 laps, and all but one under green. After claiming the top four spots in qualifying, it looked as if Penske might sweep the race, too — something that hadn't happened since Andretti Green Racing did it here in 2005.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Tony Kanaan broke up that thought by finishing third, ahead of Penske's Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, but a sweep might not be far off if Sunday's result was any indication.
"I think they're dialed in," said Kanaan, who was part of that Andretti sweep a decade ago. "They're definitely the guys to beat."
Power was the best of the bunch early after starting from the pole. A day after setting a track record around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course, the defending Grand Prix and series champion led a race-high 75 laps. He needed only 10 laps to build a three-second lead over the field.
After falling to third in the pits during a caution, Power made up for it by passing Jack Hawksworth and Sage Karam to regain the lead.
"I was determined. … I'm going to make this one count," Power said.
Montoya lingered in the top five long enough to capitalize on two uncharacteristic mistakes from Power and his team.
The first came on Lap 83, when Power pitted a lap after Montoya. The changes to his car were complete, but no one removed the tire jack, leaving Power's No. 1 Chevy stranded in its stall. By the time he finished his 9.4-second stop, Montoya had claimed the lead.
As Montoya conserved fuel, Power closed the gap. Montoya's crew counted down his lead, from more than three seconds to three car lengths.
"I'm like, 'I know he's coming. I need to save (fuel),' " Montoya said.
With 11 laps left, Power was close enough to make his move. He charged inside at Turn 10 to try to regain the lead.
"There's one chance," Power said. "I went for it."
But Montoya didn't budge.
Power slammed into Montoya's rear and dropped back. The collision knocked off part of Power's front wing — one of many new pieces of bodywork that made their debut Sunday but ended up lying on the track.
Power couldn't catch up, and Montoya pulled away to win by 0.99 seconds.
"It was a fight for our two guys up front there," team owner Roger Penske said.
And Montoya emerged with the win to solidify himself as a championship contender with a win at a track where he finished 15th last year.
Montoya said he didn't feel comfortable then. The 1999 CART champion was relearning how to brake, how to pass and how to handle being back in an open-wheel car.
By midway Sunday, he was confident enough to use a completely different setup than the rest of his powerhouse team.
"But I won the race," Montoya said. "I'm not that crazy, I guess."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.