- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Izod IndyCar Series got exactly what it needed Sunday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:
A clean, competitive race, without any bone-headed driving, contentious officiating or technical calamity.
The first race of INDYCAR's new era of engine manufacturer competition demonstrated that IndyCar Series fans have a lot to look forward to this year. St. Pete didn't offer much in the way of passing or wheel-to-wheel excitement, but it did show that the series has a solid platform to work with in terms of developing the new Dallara DW12 chassis and turbocharged V-6 engines.
Most importantly, there was no controversy, no complaining, and no carnage. And the race ended with a familiar and popular winner as Team Penske's Helio Castroneves broke a two-year drought to win on the St. Petersburg streets for the third time since 2006.
Just like in those two previous wins, Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing followed Castroneves home in second place. With Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe finishing third and fourth for Andretti Autosport, IndyCar's new turbo era started exactly the way the normally aspirated era ended -- with the series' three super teams dominating the results, if not totally the action.
Castroneves led 28 of the 100 laps and won by 5.529 seconds.
But even if the results may have looked familiar, there was plenty of "new" on display Sunday and plenty of indication that the 2012 season will offer plenty of intrigue.
"I believe it was crucial for everyone to get off to a good start," Castroneves said after his 26th Indy car race win, tying him with Rodger Ward for 13th place on the all-time list. "New cars, new manufacturers, a new person in charge [Race Director Beaux Barfield] and some new rules. So many new things and we didn't know how it would all unfold until the first race.
"Everybody learned a lot today," he added. "I guess the cars held together well and I thought it was very good. It was clean, cars looked great speed-wise, and give great credit to everyone."
The win turned around a period of bad fortune for Castroneves, who hadn't won since triumphing at the Twin Ring Motegi oval in Japan in September 2010. But it also shone a bright light on the IndyCar Series, which was in many ways still mourning the loss of popular driver Dan Wheldon in a crash last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
On his victory lap, Castroneves stopped his car at Turn 10 -- now called "Dan's Corner" on the St. Petersburg street course. After initially climbing a fence on the outside of the track in front of a throng of fans, Castroneves sprinted across the track and climbed another fence bearing a "Dan Wheldon Way" sign.
Wheldon lived in St. Petersburg, and his sister, Holly, waved the green flag for Sunday's race.
"I didn't plan that, but as soon as I celebrated I looked on my left and saw Dan's sign," Castroneves said. "I said, 'That's amazing!' and decided it was a perfect fit for this race.
"I want to thank the fans for their great support and vibe the entire weekend. They helped us do our jobs and perform here."
Dixon was delighted simply to get his season off to a solid start. Poor races at St. Petersburg the last couple of years have put the New Zealander in a hole championship points-wise.
"Helio was a man on a mission," Dixon said. "I don't think we had the pace today and I was probably a little too cautious when he went around me on the outside for the lead."
The winning pass took place on Lap 74. Dixon made his second and final pit stop one lap prior to Castroneves, and when Helio pitted on Lap 70, Dixon slipped past into the lead as the Brazilian exited the pit lane.
But Castroneves kept Dixon's Honda-powered car in sight and made the gutsy outside pass in Turn 1 a couple rounds later.
"He was rocket-ship fast and kind of in a class of his own today," Dixon lamented. "That's all we had. We have some work to do in some areas that we need to achieve."
It was a poor day for the Ganassi organization, with Charlie Kimball ninth, Graham Rahal 12th and four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti 13th. Franchitti ran out of fuel on the last lap, losing four places.
"Sometimes you have those days when you get across the finish line and sometimes you don't," Franchitti said. "Today was a bit of a disaster, to be honest."
Chevrolet drew first blood in what promises to be an intense battle for supremacy in the engine manufacturer battle with Honda. The Chevy drivers were required to keep their revs up while running under caution to prevent their batteries from losing voltage, but there were no major engine problems reported by any of the three manufacturers.
It's always important to start strong in a championship -- for us, even more so because of the season we had last year. To have my crew believe in me and never give up, proves this is a great group of guys.
”-- Helio Castroneves
"This is a great day for General Motors and obviously for Chevrolet, who made the commitment to come back into IndyCar racing," said winning team owner Roger Penske. "This really shows the commitment in the automobile industry in the U.S. All the engineers within Chevrolet teaming with Ilmor to bring a product to the marketplace like this car in one year is amazing."
Maybe the most amazing thing is that the full 26-car field got through the tight first corner without any crashes or contact. There were three full-course cautions, but none for a major engine blow-up or accident.
"The boys and girls did a good job today, huh?" said third-place finisher Hunter-Reay. "I figured with the long offseason and the carbon brakes, there would be a lot of silly driving out there today.
"On a couple of restarts, I was waiting for the thud from behind but it never came. That was a nice surprise. There was aggressiveness today, everybody just used their heads."
The IndyCar Series has just a week to regroup before hitting the track again in a few days at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. One man who can't wait to get back into the car is St. Pete winner -- and championship leader -- Castroneves.
"It's always important to start strong in a championship -- for us, even more so because of the season we had last year," Castroneves said. "To have my crew believe in me and never give up, proves this is a great group of guys.
"We never lost confidence or stopped believing," he added. "It's important for us to know as a group that we know we can do it. New car, new engine, it gives you a fresh start. As of right now, obviously, it's a fantastic feeling."