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With the St. Pete opener looking like a success, IndyCar racing on good track

Juan Pablo Montoya won at St. Petersburg where the crowd was good. Brian Cleary/Getty Images

The Verizon IndyCar Series had to come away from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg feeling pretty good.

With perfect sunny weather for the new mid-March date, big crowds flocked out to witness Juan Pablo Montoya's second consecutive victory on the downtown street circuit.

"I can't say enough about this event -- it's one of my favorites," third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "The way it's put on, the fans, it's definitely one of the highlights of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule."

The Tampa Bay Business Journal reported attendance for the three-day event was 160,000 in 2015, and Green Savoree Racing Promotions owner Kim Green said he was "optimistic" that this year's numbers were even higher.

"Our goal is to beat last year's attendance," Green told the publication. "We're seeing the energy of St. Pete and Pinellas and a lot of interest in the race."

The St. Pete numbers were up on television, too. AC Nielsen reported an overnight rating of 1.1 for the live ABC broadcast, up from 0.8 in 2015 and 0.6 in 2014. Meanwhile, NASCAR's broadcasts on FOX posted slight declines on the same weekend for the Sprint Cup Series race and the Xfinity Series.

It all indicates that the IndyCar Series could finally be gaining traction in terms of rebuilding its share of the American sports market.

"Because it's had many management changes over the years, it's sort of easy pickings for the pundits to take shots at," leading team owner Chip Ganassi said. "Obviously some of the leadership and some of the changes made over the years arguably have not been the most groundbreaking decisions in the world of motorsport.

"But at the same time, we're still racing, and things do seem to be on an upturn lately."

Roger Penske, the other dominant team owner in Indy car racing, backed up Ganassi's assessment. He noted that Hulman Motorsports CEO Mark Miles is putting the right people in place to help the sport advance, citing the hires of Jay Frye as president of competition and operations and Bill Pappas as vice president of competition and race engineering.

"We feel good about Jay," Penske said. "He's been a team owner, so he's gone through the trials and tribulations with drivers, the mechanics and the change in rules and things. I think there's the opportunity with him to discuss things and have a level playing field and not change things overnight. That's a positive and he's certainly reached out.

"Pappas has been around the sport and he's current," Penske added. "I think that's key because one of the things we need to worry about is the same as NASCAR, and that is we keep changing the rules, and every time we change them, it costs us money. We don't go any faster, and it just costs the teams money."

The cars actually did go faster this year; upgrades to the Chevrolet and Honda engines and aero kits produced a track record that was 0.6 second faster than the previous one.

In addition, the gap between Chevrolet and Honda appeared to diminish compared to 2015, indicating that the IndyCar Series allowed Honda the right amount of leeway to improve on its 2015 kit without putting Chevrolet at a disadvantage.

"I think it is better," said Andretti Autosport's Hunter-Reay, who drives under the Honda banner. "I don't think we are where we want to be yet; we were half a second off the Penskes in qualifying. That's not acceptable.

"But last year I think we qualified 10th or 12th or something, and this year we made the Fast Six," he said. "It's definitely better and what the new package does best is it doesn't surprise you. Last year's package was constantly trying to throw you under the wall. This one you can drive at 100 percent and at least you know what it's going to do. It's somewhat predictable."

With the possible exception of Carlos Munoz, the IndyCar drivers didn't do anything to blunt the momentum the series has built in the lead-up to the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May.

St. Pete often produces a messy season-opening race, but this year there were only two cautions, allowing Montoya and his Penske Racing teammate Simon Pagenaud to wage a clean fight to the finish.

The second caution, which came four turns after the restart for the first, even provided some comic relief. Munoz's optimistic move on Charlie Kimball failed, and when the Andretti Honda nudged Graham Rahal's similar car into a spin. Rahal gesticulated wildly at Munoz, until he had to pull his hands back into the cockpit because half a dozen other cars were piling into the scene and blocking the track.

The delayed diagnosis of pole winner Will Power's illness was the only other thing about the St. Pete weekend that brought IndyCar into a negative light.

Power crashed while adjusting his brake balance in the Friday morning practice session but set the fastest time in another practice later in the afternoon.

He was unsteady upon exiting the car on Saturday after his record-setting pole effort and finally on Sunday morning, the IndyCar medical staff said Power had suffered a mild concussion on Friday.

But Power had arrived at St. Petersburg with an inner ear infection, which can often affect balance, and that ultimately was what had him on the sidelines for the race.

Oriol Servia drove Power's car in the race, finishing 18th after starting from the back of the grid. Servia likely would have grabbed a top-10 had he not been one of the drivers delayed by the Munoz-Rahal pileup.

With bumps in attendance and TV audience and a popular winner in Montoya, it was about the best opening weekend that the IndyCar Series could have hoped for. The series has a great opportunity to build on that momentum when it returns to a historic IndyCar market for a night race at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2.