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Chevrolet, Montoya, Pagenaud all off to great start in 2016 IndyCar season


during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonaom at Sonoma Raceway on August 28, 2015 in Sonoma, California.

Jonathan Ferrey

There may not be anything like a sure thing, but Chevrolet is pretty darn close to it when it comes to racing at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Not only did Juan Pablo Montoya repeat last year’s win in the season opener this past Sunday, Chevy has some significant bragging rights: it has now won on the St. Pete street course for five consecutive years since the company returned to the IndyCar Series in 2012.

Plus, Chevrolet drivers took three (Simon Pagenaud was runner-up, while Helio Castroneves finished third) of the top-four finishing positions and six of the top-10 (including defending series champ Scott Dixon, who finished sixth) to start the 16-race season, making the corporate folks back in Detroit quite happy.

“Juan Pablo Montoya and his No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet team executed flawlessly to capture their second consecutive win on the Streets of St. Petersburg,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “It was great to see Simon Pagenaud take the checkered flag behind his teammate resulting in a 1-2 finish for Chevy in the season’s opening race.

“Preparation for the start of the 2016 season began immediately after the checkered flag at Sonoma (at the end of last season).

“The Chevrolet engineering team, our technical partners, teams and drivers worked tirelessly to identify opportunities for continued improvement to both the Chevy IndyCar V6 engine and the Chevrolet Aero Kit to maximize power, durability and aerodynamic balance.

“While there is more work to do, that teamwork contributed to a strong start to the season.”

Montoya, in a sense, appears to be a man on a mission in 2016. He won last season’s opener at St. Petersburg and led the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings for the first 15 races of the 16-race schedule.

But Montoya lost his title bid to Scott Dixon in the season finale at Sonoma. He claims he doesn’t think about it anymore, but that could be both subterfuge to the media as well as motivation to himself.

“It’s nice to start the year with a win,” Montoya said. “To be honest with you, when you’re in Team Penske, there’s always that pressure that you got to win races. You have to win. You’re in the best car, you got to win races.

“So to start the year with a win, it’s like, ‘Oh, I got that one out of the way’ (he said with a laugh).”

Just like last year’s race, Montoya started fourth. He took the lead for the final time with 25 laps to go in the 110-lap/198-mile race around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course.

“To come back here after being down, start the season with a win again, it shows everybody we’re here. It’s good. I feel like we can get a lot of wins this year.”

Runner-up Pagenaud, meanwhile, led 48 laps early on and then followed his Team Penske teammate across the finish line.

“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.”

Pagenaud then injected a bit of levity into the post-race press conference, taking a good-natured dig at his teammate.

“Montoya is an old dog,” Pagenaud said with a laugh. “He found a little good trick on me. Fortunately I had a lot of wheel spin compared to last year. I decided to be aggressive on the restarts. Maybe I was too close to T.K. (Tony Kanaan). I think it took quite a bit of aerodynamics out of my car. Had a lot of wheel spin, didn’t go forward. Great job on him to get me.”

Pagenaud now finds himself just eight points (51 to 43) behind his teammate in the standings heading into the second race of the season at Phoenix, under the lights on April 2.

“Overall you have to look at the big picture,” Pagenaud said, adding with another laugh, “the evolution of the whole team, I hope you guys (media) see it now, that you stop saying bad stuff about my team.

“But it’s been awesome. We had so much fun this weekend. We’re just going to keep pushing and I think we’ll be strong this year.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski