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Castroneves reflects on Wheldon after win


Helio Castroneves didn't realize how emotional he would be when he climbed the fence at St. Petersburg to honor the late Dan Wheldon.

After winning the IndyCar Series opener Sunday in Wheldon's adopted hometown, Castroneves climbed the fence in Turn 10 and patted the Dan Wheldon Way sign that was erected earlier this month. Wheldon was killed in a crash in the October season finale.

"As soon as I got there, you know, I felt very touched," Castroneves said. "Seeing his name there, certainly what happened last year, we still hurt, but we've got to keep moving on. That's life. I did think about my family, as well. That's why there was a little more emotion."

Castroneves, who suffered through his first winless season in IndyCar last season, was able to celebrate the victory with his 2-year-old daughter, Mikaella.

In the five months since the accident, many of the drivers have been forced to consider their own immortality. And because the popular Wheldon left behind two young sons, the veteran drivers maybe had a different perspective than others.

"We have to remember, racing is still a dangerous sport. That's the sad part of it," he said. "Unfortunately, there's still the risk involved. All our families knows about the risk. It's tough for them, but that's life."

DIXON'S DAY: With his second-place finish, Scott Dixon remained winless at St. Petersburg and finished behind race-winner Castroneves for a third time.

He was hardly disappointed, though.

Dixon has had a terrible stretch at this track the last four seasons, and was grateful Sunday just to finish the race. He'd not finished better than 16th in his last four races, and crashed out in 2009 and 2010.

"I didn't push the envelope too much, I was trying to envision a finish here," he said.

Dixon has been a popular preseason pick to unseat Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti's streak for the championship, and getting off to a strong start to the year could prove to be the difference. He was 16th in points after last year's opener and had to climb out of the hole all year. Same thing in 2009, and in 2010 he left St. Pete 11th in the standings.

"We've definitely struggled the last few years probably with the first four races," Dixon said. "Obviously, you're going to be aggressive and not change your style at all, but you just have to focus on making the right decisions I think throughout the day.

"This race pays the same amount of points as the last one. Consistency, if you look backwards with Dario over the last couple of years, that's what's won the championship."

Franchitti never contended, and ran out of gas on the final lap to finish 13th - lowest of the four Ganassi cars.

RHR's MISSION: There were points in Sunday's race when Andretti Autosport was scolding Ryan Hunter-Reay for his "terrible" laps.

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When he was running in the top three.

Hunter-Reay was forced to conserve fuel for most of the 100 laps, and the strategy prevented him from attempting to race for the win.

"It's interesting when you're in a fuel race; it's like fighting with one arm tied behind your back," he said. "It really is an art to actually turn quick laps and save a lot of fuel. Good strategy. I only wish we could have fought at the end, really fought hard, because I think we had a really good car on used tires, old tires.

"I would have liked to have given that a shot. But it was the race we were running."

Hunter-Reay, who has finished seventh in the standings the last two years, was still pleased with the opener. He wrecked in last year's first race, and is striving to set a strong pace early this season.

"We want a points race this year, we really do," he said. "Last year I came out really aggressive. This year, I want to come out aggressive, as well, but with the big picture in mind. We want to fight for the championship."

STRONG DEBUTS: It was a solid first race at St. Petersburg for a trio of drivers who had never before raced this course - including 21-year-old rookie Josef Newgarden, who made his IndyCar Series debut.

James Hinchcliffe, who was without a ride this race last year, finished fourth in his first race with Andretti Autosport. Last year's rookie of the year was hired by Andretti to replace Danica Patrick in the highly visible car.

Hinchcliffe, who only had three top-five finishes last season, gave the GoDaddy car its best result since Patrick was second in the 2010 season finale. He also matched his career-best finish.

"I feel really good. Obviously coming into my second year with a great team, it's a team that is used to performing, so you want to perform," said Hinchcliffe, who donned a long black wig to imitate Patrick in driver introductions.

"We keep knocking on the door. If we can start off this year with a tie for my best finish in the series, I think it is a good strong starting point."

Simon Pagenaud had a strong opening weekend in his debut with Schmidt-Hamilton Racing. He was fastest in the final practice session, had a strong qualifying run to make it to the Fast Six round, and finished sixth. He actually made up 10 spots on the grid, as he was forced to drop back to 16th at the start because of an unapproved engine change.

"It's always good to get points at the start of the day," he said. "I damaged the front wing early on, and it forced a little push. It was a really good recovery by the team to get us up front. We have a good baseline now to go into the next race - it's a good way to start the championship."

Newgarden, last year's Indy Lights champion, was also impressive all weekend in his series debut. He finished 11th.

"It was great. We had a couple of incidents that probably set us back," Newgarden said. "I was kind of hoping I could have held those guys off at the end, it would have been nice to have finished in the top-10. But at the end of the day, I think we had a lot more than that. We've got a lot more to show next weekend, and I'm learning, the team is learning.

"But I think together, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future."