Castroneves wins poignant IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg
After an emotional offseason as the sport tried to deal with the loss of Dan Wheldon, Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was just what IndyCar needed to move on -- a nice, clean race.
In any other season, the 100-lap race would be called uneventful. But after the events that began with Wheldon's death in a 15-car pileup at the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the sun shined brightly on the streets of St. Petersburg.
While this was the first race for a new chassis/engine package, leave it to an old favorite to deliver IndyCar with an appreciated feel-good story. Helio Castroneves scored his third victory at St. Petersburg, capping it off with a fitting tribute to Wheldon.
Castroneves, known for climbing fences after wins, couldn't have picked a better location for his celebratory gesture. Instead of pulling off to climb the fence in Turn 1, Castroneves chose a new location in Turn 10 -- the street renamed "Dan Wheldon Way." Wheldon, from Emberton, England, called St. Pete home.
Castroneves said he didn't realize that was the Wheldon's spot, but after he climbed to the top of the fence, he looked over and saw the sign.
"You can never question God's mystery," Castroneves said. "The fans were on the exit of turn 10. The sign was on the inside. So that's why I went over there, with the fans, to celebrate. That's why it's so much fun. When I looked around, the sign was shiny and bright to me. I was a little concerned to cross the track. I asked the safety guys. They said, 'No, no, you can do it.' So it felt great. Certainly it's gratifying. It's awesome. I will sleep like an angel tonight, or like a baby, like my little girl."
By the numbers, it was an important win for Castroneves, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner coming off his worst season at Team Penske. He failed to win a race and finished 11th in the 2011 standings. It was his 26th career win, matching Rodger Ward for 15th all-time. His two previous wins at St. Pete came in 2006 and 2007.
For the third time, Scott Dixon was runner-up to Castroneves at this race. Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner, moved his family to St. Petersburg for a few months last October to help take care of Wheldon's widow, Susie, and her two young children Sebastian and Oliver.
Dixon would have loved to have won in honor of his close friend and former teammate.
Now, IndyCar has a new storyline. It's time to move beyond the Wheldon tragedy and get back to the business of racing.
"I think it is still so fresh," Dixon said. "I think in some ways it's almost fitting the first race was in St. Pete, not that you'd ever want it to happen. If you could turn back time and change things, you certainly would.
"For me personally, I just miss the guy. It sucks not to be able to turn around and see him coming through a door with those bright white teeth sort of smiling at you. It's tough to deal with. I think it's nice to see Holly (Wheldon's sister) here this weekend, have her support, for a lot of the guys and teams, she knows a lot of people."
While many said the tight 1.8-mile street course featured little passing, that's not quite true. Castroneves won from the fifth starting position, and Dixon started sixth. There were nine lead changes among seven drivers, with Dixon leading twice for 37 laps and Castroneves twice for 28.
The key pass came on Lap 73 when Castroneves overtook Dixon for second place in Turn 1. J.R. Hildebrand was leading at the time, and when he made a pit stop on Lap 75 Castroneves made the winning move as the race went into fuel-conservation mode.
Castroneves opened a comfortable lead over Dixon and won by 5.5292 seconds.
The checkered flag not only signaled the end of the race but also, hopefully, closure for IndyCar. It's a chance to move on, and while Wheldon will always be remembered for his popular personality and his on-track excellence, it's time for the sport to move forward.
The new car with new engines performed solidly in its first on-track contest in a competitive environment. Sure, there were some unexpected Gremlins such as the Chevrolet engines experiencing a battery charging issue that foiled Tony Kanaan's effort after just 21 laps. The Lotus teams suffered expected issues because of the manufacturer's struggles to prepare for the series.
The new car is built to be safer than the Dallara that was used from 2003 to last year, and some wonder what might have been if this car had been in competition sooner.
"If we did have this car in the last race of the season, I believe Dan would be here," Castroneves said. " ... But we always got to remember, unfortunately there's still the risk involved. All our families know about the risk. It's tough for them, but that's life."