Even with pole winner Will Power absent from the race after being diagnosed with mild concussion following a heavy crash on Friday, there was no stopping Team Penske at what is without doubt one of their favourite tracks.

After Power was forced out of the proceedings, Simon Pagenaud inherited pole position for the green flag of the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, with team mate Helio Castroneves alongside him on the front row. Last year's race winner Juan Pablo Montoya took up third place for the start, alongside Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon.

When the race got underway, everyone got through the first corner but jostling through the first corners ended up with Takuma Sato (AJ Foyt Racing) going off into the run-off area at the end of the long straight, and James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsport) suffering a puncture that put him off the lead lap. There was also an early visit to pit lane for Ed Carpenter Racing's Josef Newgarden at the end of lap 1, the first of what proved to be many stops for a series of electrical gremlins before he eventually became the first official retiree of the day.

Pagenaud had successfully kept hold of the lead, but Montoya had found his way around Castroneves for second. Dixon maintained fourth ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport), Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan), birthday boy Marco Andretti and KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais in eighth.

While Pagenaud scampered off into the distance, all was not well for Castroneves who was locking up under braking giving the train of cars behind him repeated chances to get past. Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Rahal all duly took advantage before Castroneves finally decided to make a hair-raising sweep across the oncoming traffic to reach pit lane on lap 20 to try and address his mounting handling issues.

Pagenaud waited three more laps before making his own first stop, soon reclaiming the lead once again ahead of Montoya and Dixon. Meanwhile Dale Coyne Racing's Conor Daly found himself promoted into fourth place after opting for an early pit stop strategy putting him out of sync with the rest of the leaders. His team mate Luca Filippi had done likewise and ended up in fifth place narrowly ahead of Hunter-Reay on track, and the pair made accidental contact that sent aero kit bodywork debris flying.

With the race continuing to run caution-free, Daly was eventually in for his second stop on lap 42. Before Filippi could follow suit, Hunter-Reay finally found his way past on the inside of turn 1; Andretti tried to follow his team mate through but Filippi closed the door and the pair made contact, spinning Andretti onto the grass where he stalled and trigged the first full course caution of the afternoon on lap 46.

With everyone taking the opportunity to pit, Pagenaud won the race off pit road ahead of Montoya, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Rahal. However, Daly's early stop meant that it was the Dale Coyne Racing driver who now assumed the lead for the restart on lap 57, following an aborted restart in lap 54 in which Andretti stalled on track for a second time.

The green didn't last long before contact between Rahal and Andretti Autosport's Carlos Mu?oz in turn 4 ended up spinning the #15 around and blocking the track, with a total of nine cars either running into the blockage or taking avoiding action into the run-off area just before the corner. The caution flags were immediately out in full force as the race officials attempted to sort out the mess and clear a path through the forcibly parked cars. Despite some damage to the cars involved, ost cars were able to resume the race although several were a lap down, and only Bourdais was eventually forced to retire.

Racing finally resumed on lap 64, with Daly unable to close the door on Montoya going into turn 1. A now oddly-subdued Pagenaud was unable to pull off the same trick and remained bottled up in third place, while his team mate Castroneves was finally over his earlier handling problems and quickly able to get the jump on Dixon for fourth followed by Hunter-Reay and SPM returnee Mikhail Aleshin.

With 39 laps still to go Dixon was the first of the leaders to make a move to pit road after the #9 started overheating, the crew putting in an extended effort to clear out the clogged sidepods which had to be repeated on all the Ganassi cars in turn. By contrast, it was another ten laps before Conor Daly came down in for what should have been his final stop; unfortunately for the rookie, a few laps later front wing damage and overheating forced him to make unscheduled extra stops and ruined what had been looking like a top six finish.

The rest of the leaders made their own final stops in short order over successive laps, and after the dust settled it was a Penske trio at the front with Montoya almost two seconds clear of Pagenaud and Castroneves a further six and a half seconds down the road, followed by Hunter-Reay, Aleshin, Sato, Charlie Kimball (Ganassi), Munoz and Dixon. Rounding out the top ten was Alexander Rossi on his IndyCar d?but, but he was eventually passed by Ganassi veteran Tony Kanaan.

While traffic became an increasing issue for the leaders, the race closed out without further incident or interruption, although Kimball ended his way in the wall after spinning off at turn 1 after the chequered flag had been shown to Montoya, while a late move by Hunter-Reay on Castroneves thwarted Penske's hopes of a podium lock-out.

Despite late issues with his steering, Montoya was able to celebrate an assured, calm victory for the second time in a row at St Petersburg. It's his 15th win in the IndyCar Series.

"The Chevy was good all day. It was exciting to have a new paint scheme 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."

Last year, his season opener victory meant he led every single round of the 2015 championship until he was pipped to the title by Dixon in the final race of the year at Sonoma, and the Colombian will be keen to establish the same sort of momentum this year - with ideally a better finish at the end of it.

Having led a race-high 48 laps to Montoya's 44, Pagenaud had to settle for second place ahead of Hunter-Reay who held on to third ahead of Castroneves. Aleshin and Sato claimed fifth and sixth while Dixon managed to eke out his fuel to cross the line in seventh. Kimball's late mishap helped Munoz claim eighth place ahead of Tony Kanaan, with Kimball posted as the first man a lap down in tenth place ahead of AJ Foyt Racing's Jack Hawksworth followed by Alexander Rossi, while Conor Daly was an unlucky 13th after so much hard work.

The next race in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season is the week after Easter, with the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway scheduled for April 2. The three weeks should give Power ample opportunity to recover from his concussion and pass IndyCar's strict medical protocols before he's allowed back in the car.

See full race results for the 2016 Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg



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