It's been an age since that late-night finish to last year's IZOD IndyCar Series campaign and that thrilling against-the-odds title victory for Ryan Hunter-Reay at Auto Club Speedway, Fontana. This weekend it was NASCAR's turn to play at that California venue, while IndyCar was on the East Coast for its traditional season opener on the streets of St Petersburg in Florida.
Things were looking good for Power, who had won his fourth consecutive pole at St Pete in qualifying on Saturday afternoon and looked in unstoppable form heading into the race. By contrast, the reigning champion Hunter-Reay was down in eighth place and the Ganassi duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon - the traditional foes of the Penske squad - were looking down-and-out with under-performing cars and under-powered Honda engines, at least compared to the Chevrolet units favoured by Power and his team mate Helio Castroneves.
Sure enough, Power shot off as soon as honorary starter Susie Wheldon showed the field the green flag to get the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg underway. Power was soon disappearing off down the road pulling, out a lead of more than half a second per lap, albeit not without a few lairy close-call moments in the process to show just how hard the Aussie was pushing. Behind him, Takuma Sato was able to hold on the second place he'd won in qualifying - AJ Foyt Racing's first front row start in over a decade - but the less experienced Simona de Silvestro was understandably caught out in the melee into turn 1 and the KV Racing Technology car immediately dropped positions to Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe into turn 1.
Dario Franchitti struggled from the start, progressively conceding places to the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastian Saavedra and Graham Rahal. Finally on lap 18 Dario pitted to see if a change of tyres would help, but on his first lap out of pit road on the colder, harder compound tyres he drifted wide through the exit of turn 8 into turn 9 and then skated over the marbles into a hard hit against the wall. That happened right in front of his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon, who was lucky to avoid getting caught up in his team mate's wreck. All in all it capped a nightmarish weekend start to the season for the Scot, and brought out the first caution of the race.
"We've really struggled with the Target car this weekend," explained Franchitti. "I was trying to make up for it somewhere on the track and I just stepped over the line there on cold tyres.
"I hit a bump in Turn 3, and with the ride height being so low with the tires pressures I just got in the marbles and in the wall," he added, admitting: "It was totally my mistake."
There was a mad scramble for the pits by anyone yet to take their first stop of the day, with Castroneves getting the jump on Sato out of pit road and duly lining up alongside Power for the restart. There were no pulled punches between team mates at the green flag and Castroneves accomplished a sweeping move around the outside to take the lead from Power, while behind them Sato was demoted another spot this time thanks to a nice pass from Hinchcliffe.
The green didn't last long, however: the field bunched up behind them and Charlie Kimball was pitched into a spin that left him blocking the track, catching out Ana Beatriz, JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter and Oriol Servià. The track officials moved into action and cleared the course in double quick time without need of a yellow, with everyone getting back underway even though Servià required an emergency stop for a new front wing for his Dallara DW12 that dropped him to the back of the field. But the track still went yellow again anyway, thanks to Hildebrand - his front wing already wrecked in the earlier incident when he'd run into the back of James Jakes' Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car - now getting tipped into the tyre barrier by Sebastian Saavedra. This one did need a full retrieval team, forcing the return to the full course caution.
It was a mainly single-file affair at the front for the restart on lap 32, with Power stalking his team mate into turn 1 evidently planning on pulling off a pass to get his lead back. It didn't happen, and Power had to check up to avoid losing his nose on the back of Castroneves' #3 through the corner - which allowed Hinchcliffe to steal second from him. Behind the battle for the lead Sato suffered another lost position, the Japanese this time unable to resist a classy pass from de Silvestro who looked to be building in confidence with every passing lap.