Commentary

James Hinchcliffe gets emotional win

Updated: March 25, 2013, 4:43 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On Sunday, James Hinchcliffe did something Danica Patrick has not yet been able to do.

[+] EnlargeHinchcliffe
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesJames Hinchcliffe overtook Helio Castroneves on the final restart and held on at St. Pete to give sponsor GoDaddy its first IndyCar victory.

He delivered a race win to GoDaddy.com.

Hinchcliffe drove a car sponsored by the provocative web domain vendor to victory in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of 19 rounds in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship. It was the first race win for the popular 26-year-old Canadian in his 32nd Indy car start.

The self-proclaimed "Mayor of Hinchtown" crossed the line 1.098 seconds ahead of three-time St. Petersburg champion Helio Castroneves. Marco Andretti drove his most competitive street race in years to take third place, putting two Andretti Autosport drivers on the podium.

Hinchcliffe was tabbed in early 2012 to step into the GoDaddy-sponsored car that the late Dan Wheldon was slated to drive. Wheldon signed a contract to return to Andretti Autosport on the morning of Oct. 16, 2011, the day he was killed in an IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The GoDaddy car was familiar to IndyCar fans because between 2008-11 Patrick drove it, prior to her switch into stock car racing. Patrick earned several second- and third-place finishes in the distinctive neon green car, but never scored a race win.

That honor instead went to Hinchcliffe, who passed Castroneves on a restart on Lap 85 of 110 and held on to the finish.

"It's so special to get my first win, finally, and to do it here at St. Pete in the first race of the season," Hinchcliffe related. "You know, this is Dan's hometown and we all know this is Dan's car. So this win goes back to him. His whole family is here and everybody did such a fantastic job to make this happen.

"I'm just ecstatic and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Wheldon called St. Petersburg home for the last seven years of his life, and his wife and children still live in the coastal Florida city. In fact, Susie Wheldon waved the green flag for Sunday's race on a weekend when a new monument was dedicated on Dan Wheldon Way, near Turn 10 of the St. Petersburg street circuit.

There's no doubt Wheldon would have won races in the No. 27 Andretti car, and little doubt that Hinchcliffe will win more. He got his first in the best possible way, in a straight fight with the master of this particular racetrack.

Castroneves had taken the lead on the 27th lap by passing his Penske Racing teammate (and pole sitter) Will Power with a gutsy outside move into Turn 1 on a restart. But on the final restart of the day, Castroneves left his braking a fraction of a second too late, and his car drifted just wide enough to allow Hinchcliffe to sneak past.

[+] EnlargeDario Franchitti
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesDario Franchitti's wrecked racer gets the hook after crashing exiting the pits on Lap 19.

"You've got Helio Castroneves there, he's a three-time winner of this race, and he's on the Firestone red tires," Hinchcliffe observed. "He made a mistake and I got by, but he had 30 laps to get it back.

"Probably with about five laps to go, I thought we might win this thing," he added. "Prior to that I knew Helio had the red tires and we were trying to hold him off on blacks. I had more overtakes [push-to-pass turbo boost], so I knew I had that in the bag. If he was going to beat me, I wanted him to beat me straight up and not because I made a mistake. That was the key here today."

Castroneves was frustrated after the race, believing he had the car he needed to claim a fourth win on the streets of St. Pete.

"I feel terrible," shrugged the charismatic Brazilian. "My Hitachi car was fantastic. If you asked me Friday about finishing second, I'd have been pretty darn happy. But not today. The car was so hooked up through the whole run.

"It's just a shame when you make a little mistake, but you've got to keep learning. Even an old dog makes mistakes, but it was a great way to start the championship."

Andretti was thrilled after posting his best street-course finish in nearly two years. He piled the pressure on Simona de Silvestro in the closing laps, finally forcing the Swiss female into a mistake in the hairpin on the run to the white flag. De Silvestro faded to sixth place on the final lap, passed by her KV Racing teammate Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon.

Andretti vowed to improve his street-course performance this year and has been working with a driver coach in an effort to modify his technique.

"It feels good to reap some of the benefits," Marco stated. "I've been working so hard, not just physically, but really on my street-course game. Obviously we have a long way to go, but this is a great start for the team. It's awesome to see James get his first win and to be on the podium with him.

You know, this is Dan's hometown and we all know this is Dan's car. So this win goes back to him. His whole family is here and everybody did such a fantastic job to make this happen.

-- James Hinchcliffe

"I have to give a lot of credit to Simona -- she drove a hell of a race," he continued. "I knew it was going to come down to the last couple laps and I knew her tires were going off so I just wanted to kind of hang in there. I was really watching my rears so I could come off the last corner. We got the power down a bit better. I had to muscle it a little bit, but it's a selfish sport and I needed this podium so bad."

The championship favorites suffered through a difficult opening weekend to their 2013 campaign. Four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti was the year's first retirement, crashing on cold tires after exiting the pits on Lap 19. Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay was plagued by a sticking throttle and finished 18th.

Meanwhile, Power, who secured the St. Pete pole for the fourth consecutive year, looked set for a top-3 finish until his car was damaged in a bizarre incident under caution when JR Hildebrand lost concentration and drove over the top of the Verizon Penske car.

Hildebrand took the blame for the accident and Power was able to finish the race, but in a lowly 16th place.

So the new season started with a new winner and provided evidence that this year's IndyCar Series championship could be more wide-open than ever.

"The big thing people were saying over the offseason is 'What's it going to take to win?'" noted Hinchcliffe. "The key was minimizing mistakes. We had a good car; I'm not sure it was the fastest car over a lap, but we nailed the pit stops and the GoDaddy car was really good on those black tires.

"It's a long season," he added. "Obviously it's great to start it off with two Andretti Autosport cars on the podium, but some guys had some bad luck today and some guys had some bad luck yesterday that led to some bad things today. We know if we keep making mistake-free races, we're going to be in contention week in and week out. Some days it's going to be our day, others it's going to be a third-, fourth- or eighth-place car.

"We've just got to take those and not make mistakes that throw away points."