The Inside Line: Castroneves rising and climbing in IndyCar
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The IZOD IndyCar Series' first race of the 2012 season on Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., featured a brand new car as well as new engine manufacturers, drivers and race officials.
It was an emotional weekend in St. Pete as well because it was the series' first race since Dan Wheldon's fatal crash last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
But Helio Castroneves' return to victory lane followed by his personal tribute to Wheldon topped the headlines in the series' season-opener.
Castroneves ended a lengthy 18-race winless streak by taking the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Late in the 100-lap race, the Team Penske driver made a bold pass on Scott Dixon for second and then quickly overtook J.R. Hildebrand for the lead.
"I decided to go to the outside, and I braked as deep as I could where everybody brakes," Castroneves recalled on his pass of Dixon. "That was awesome, because the car sticks. I'm like, 'Yes, I made it.'"
Castroneves ran in front for the remaining 26 laps around the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, finishing 5.5 seconds ahead of Dixon.
"Helio was a man on a mission," Dixon said. "He was rocket ship fast and kind of in a class of his own."
Castroneves claimed his 26th career IndyCar win but his first since September 2010 at Motegi, Japan. It was also his record third victory at St. Pete. The Brazilian won back-to-back races there from 2006-07.
"I felt great starting here," Castroneves said afterward. "I was focused. I had the butterflies in my stomach, which is a good sign. But they were flying in formation. They weren't like crazy butterflies. Everything was under control.
"I think when you kind of feel that way, (that) good things are going to happen. If the game plays in your hand, you might end up in a good position. Today is exactly what happened. We were consistent, we were fast, had good strategy and were cautious. We have all these ingredients together, and it was a perfect race."
Castroneves gave Chevrolet the victory in its return to IndyCar as an engine manufacturer. Chevrolet left the series after the 2005 season, which made Honda the series' only engine supplier for the past six years. Lotus is a new provider of motors in IndyCar this year as well.
He also became the first driver to win in IndyCar's new "DW12" car, which was named in honor of Wheldon, who served as test driver of the car during its development stages last summer.
Castroneves put behind him a frustrating 2011 season, as he finished 11th in the point standings. He failed to win a race for the first season since he started competing in the series in 2001.
With the St. Pete victory, Castroneves and his No. 3 Penske team have proven to be championship contenders again.
"We never lost confidence and we never stopped believing, especially this offseason, with the tests that we've been doing, we've been up there in testing, helping each other, so we never stopped believing," he said. "I think now at this point with the new car and new engine, it gives you a fresh start."
When the series competed at St. Petersburg one year ago, Castroneves was involved in a six-car wreck on the first turn of the opening lap. Castroneves and Marco Andretti made contact, with Andretti's car flipping upside down. Dixon also was involved in that incident.
Castroneves finished 15 laps down in 20th place.
This year's race at St. Pete ran relatively incident-free. There were no multi-car crashes after the double-file restarts and, best of all, there was no controversy, unlike many road/street course and oval events last year.
Castroneves celebrated his long-awaited next victory with his trademarked climbing of the fence. But his post-race climb didn't take place in its usual location on the racetrack. He did this one on "Dan Wheldon Way."
"I remember I used to stop in turn one and celebrate, but this time, I said, 'I'm going to do something else, in a different corner,'" Castroneves said. "I saw turn 10. I didn't plan. As soon as I kind of like celebrated, I looked and saw Dan's sign. It's amazing. I said it before and I say it now, you can never question God's mystery."
After taking the checkered flag, Castroneves parked in turn 10, hopped out of his car and then climbed the fence on the inside of the track to salute the fans. He then jogged over to the other side of the course and crawled up that fence to pat a street sign in honor of Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former series champion.
Wheldon won the 2005 inaugural race at St. Pete after passing Ryan Briscoe for the lead in turn 10 late in the event.
Earlier this month, the city of St. Petersburg dedicated that section of the track to Wheldon, who had resided in the area. City officials and event organizers also unveiled plans for a two-panel monument to celebrate his life and St. Petersburg's role in IndyCar racing.
"Obviously, Dan will always be missed," Castroneves said.
The series will compete this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, which is located just outside of Birmingham, Ala. Castroneves won the inaugural race there two years ago.
03/26 16:46:56 ET