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IndyCar remembering and honoring Dan Wheldon in St. Pete race

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series not only gets underway this weekend in St. Petersburg, FL, but it's also the series' first race to be held since the death of Dan Wheldon last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

IndyCar has endured a long and difficult five-month offseason following the horrific 15-car crash that claimed the life of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former series champion. But IndyCar is ready to race again with its new "DW12" car, named in honor of Wheldon, new engine suppliers -- Chevrolet and Lotus -- and a host of safety improvements.

It's only fitting that St. Petersburg be the first event since the passing of Wheldon. The Englishman had resided in the area.

St. Petersburg will indeed be an emotional race, with Wheldon on the minds of all of the competitors.

"I think it's going to be emotional for a lot of people, and it's going to make it a special event that we are all going to remember him," said Dreyer and Reinbold Racing driver Oriol Servia. "It's just a different way to start the season but not the way anybody wanted. It's going to make the event even more special."

Drivers, teams and race officials will pay tribute to Wheldon in many different ways during Sunday's 100-lap race on the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street circuit. Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti will wear a special helmet in honor of his late-friend. The paint scheme on Andretti's helmet will feature a special "Lionheart" design, much like the one Wheldon had worn.

"Obviously, we're going to be driving with very heavy hearts because of Dan Wheldon," Andretti said. "But he was proud to call that place home, so we're going to go there and try to enjoy ourselves, and we're going to compete because Dan was a competitor."

Earlier this month, the city of St. Petersburg dedicated a section of the street circuit to Wheldon. The corner of Bayshore Drive and Albert Whitted Park, which is turn 10 during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, was named "Dan Wheldon Way."

In addition, city officials and event organizers unveiled plans for a two- panel monument to celebrate Wheldon's life and St. Petersburg's role in IndyCar racing.

"Dan loved St. Petersburg; our city loved him," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said during the March 7 dedication ceremony. "This monument will stand for generations to come as a remembrance to a great and humble man who left an indelible impression upon the sport of racing and upon the city he called home, St. Petersburg."

Wheldon's sister, Holly, will wave the green flag to start the race. She will also present the first-place trophy to the event winner.

When IndyCar competed at St. Petersburg for the first time in 2005, Wheldon passed Ryan Briscoe for the lead in turn 10 late in the race and then held it for the win. Wheldon also won his first Indianapolis 500 and series title that year, driving for then-Andretti Green Racing.

Dario Franchitti, who captured his record third consecutive and fourth overall series championship last year, is the defending St. Petersburg race winner. Franchitti put on a dominating performance by leading 94 of 100 laps. He passed Will Power, the pole sitter, just after a restart on the fifth lap and then took command from there. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished more than seven seconds ahead of Power.

Even though the win looked easy, Franchitti claimed it was a difficult task.

"That was the first day of the double-wide restarts, and we kept having carnage," he said. "I managed to use the second restart to my advantage by passing Will on the outside of turn one and turn two and managed to lead it to the end. That was a great way to start the season."

Franchitti won at St. Petersburg for the first time in six attempts there.

"I'm glad I could finally win one, because I found a few ways to lose them around here," he added.

Power has been dominant on the road and street courses the past two IndyCar seasons. In 2010, he won at Sao Paulo Brazil and St. Petersburg for a 2-0 start to the season. Of the last 19 road/street course races, Power has won 10 of them.

He has finished no worse than eighth in four starts at St. Petersburg.

"I guess it's like your typical street course," Power said. "The thing about this track is there's really no fast corners. The fast corners we do, you're flat out on so you don't really consider them as corners. It seems to suit me, and I enjoy it a lot."

Twenty-six teams are on the entry list for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Series: IZOD IndyCar. Date: Sunday, March 25. Race: Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Site: Streets of St. Petersburg, FL. Track: 1.806-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit. Start time: 12:30 p.m. (et). Laps: 100. Miles: 180.6. 2011 Winner: Dario Franchitti. Television: ABC. Radio: IMS Radio Network/SIRIUS XM Satellite.

03/22 13:37:09 ET

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