ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Will Power shook off a six-month layoff by pacing the opening practice of the IndyCar season.
The defending series champion wasted no time shooting to the top of the leaderboard as he weaved through the streets of St. Petersburg, site of Sunday's season-opening race. Power's title run began on this 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit with a win in last year's opener.
It was the first of three wins for the Australian, who finally broke through with his first series championship after losing three consecutive titles from 2010 through 2012.
Now that he has his crown, Power is determined not to let up one bit.
"Winning the championship was absolutely satisfying for me, it's something I don't have to worry about anymore," Power said. "But now that a new season is here, you don't even think about the fact that you won a championship. It's the same old story -- nothing has changed for me, and I feel like I am even more motivated to go out this year and accomplish even more."
He's had plenty of time to think about this season: IndyCar has not raced since the Aug. 30 finale, making this offseason one of the longest in series history.
The layoff put the series out of sight and out of mind at a time it's trying to build momentum. IndyCar made some gains last season, when it's viewership numbers were up 25 percent, traffic to the series website was up 45 percent and its social media accounts all saw significant gains.
The drivers, who have had little to do outside of a recent stretch of testing, were all eager to get back to work on Friday.
"I've never liked a long offseason, and six months is way too long," said Tony Kanaan. "I don't think it's healthy for anybody. I'm not going to get into 'Oh, people will forget about you guys,' because when something is good, you can take time off. But, it's still just way too much time off for all of us."
Now back on the track, the drivers are adapting to new aerodynamic kits that have replaced the spec Dallara chassis and help manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda differentiate themselves from each other.
Since testing began in the aero kits this month, speeds seem up and Chevrolet appears to have the early edge.
Michael Andretti, owner of a three-car Honda team, believes each manufacturer will have specific tracks that it will have an advantage. But, he cautioned the entire paddock still has a lot to learn about the aero kits.
"I think we're still far away from understanding the whole package, because there is so much adjustability to this new package," Andretti said. "I don't think anybody's going to really have the right combination in the first race. I think we're going to find there's going to be some kits that are quicker at some tracks than others."
It's not clear what the kits will do to competition. The cars will have additional downforce this year that will allow drivers to run faster and deeper into the corners, and how that changes the racing remains to be seen. IndyCar already features some of the best racing in the world, with parity deep into the field.
"Once this race is over, we're going to find out if the racing is better or worse," said Josef Newgarden. "I don't think you could really beat IndyCar racing before, it was the most phenomenal racing on the planet."
Newgarden is among the many offseason changes to the driver lineups throughout the paddock.
His Sarah Fisher Racing team merged with Ed Carpenter Racing to create CFH racing, where Luca Filippi has also joined the team for the road and street courses.
Jack Hawksworth joined A.J. Foyt Racing in a second car alongside Takuma Sato. KVSH Racing brought in newcomer Stefano Coletti, and Dale Coyne Racing also added a newcomer in Francesco Dracone.
James Hinchcliffe moved from Andretti Autosport to Sam Schmidt Racing, where he replaced Simon Pagenaud, who jumped to Team Penske in a new fourth car.
Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves is at Bryan Herta Autosport. Simona de Silvestro is back in IndyCar after a one-year absence for Sunday in a one-race deal for Andretti, and Sage Karam will become the youngest driver in Chip Ganassi Racing history when the 20-year-old makes his first start on Sunday in another race
For now, though, not much remains changed from last season -- at least not after the only on-track session Friday.
Team Penske drivers Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves swept the top three spots in practice, while newcomer Pagenaud was a distant ninth.
What to make of that early showing?
"That we are not 1-2-3-4. We should all be right there," said Montoya.