IndyCar Series

St. Pete kicks off new season for IndyCar

St. Petersburg, FL (Sports Network) - The 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series gets underway this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, and so does Ryan Hunter-Reay's quest for a second consecutive championship.

Winning a series-high four races last year, Hunter-Reay edged Will Power for the IndyCar title by just three points. He had trailed Power by 36 points with two races go.

Hunter-Reay began the 2012 season with a third-place finish at St. Pete. It wasn't until midway through the 15-race calendar that he became a perennial threat for the championship. The Andretti Autosport driver moved into the title mix when he won three races in a row -- Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto.

"You need to get off to a good start to get the team on the right track and get the momentum going and get the energy, the right energy, going to for the team," Hunter-Reay said. "No better race to do it than the first one. We will look to definitely take that first step this weekend."

This year's race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Pete street circuit has been increased from 100 laps to 110. IndyCar also changed the race distances for Long Beach, Calif. (April 21), Milwaukee (June 15) and Mid-Ohio (Aug. 4). The sanctioning body modified the length of those races to discourage fuel-mileage racing and therefore better match traditional fuel windows.

"I think it's going to depend on the right strategy," Hunter-Reay said. "St. Pete always seems to be a little bit of a crapshoot on strategy and where you end up at the end, what you end up hitting. And weather can be a big factor.

"So it's going to keep us on our toes. It always does, this race, and it should be an exciting one with that front straight long, big, wide airport runway, big passing zone. Bottom line is it will be a good show as we have been putting on for the past few seasons, and I think it will come down to the last few laps."

The winner at St. Petersburg has gone on to win the IndyCar championship twice in the eight-year history of this race. Dan Wheldon did it in 2005, the inaugural year of the event, and Dario Franchitti did so in 2011.

Helio Castroneves is the only driver with multiple victories at St. Pete. Castroneves has won there three time, including a victory last year.

In the 2012 IndyCar season-opening event at St. Pete, Castroneves grabbed the lead from J.R. Hildebrand with 27 laps to and then ran in front from there to snap an 18-race winless streak in the series.

"It's good to be back in the race car after such a long offseason for us," Castroneves said. "You see people getting ready and preparing themselves, and it's just becoming very rushed, especially when you have all of six months off. I'm very excited to go to St. Pete and defend my win from last year."

Last year's season-opener marked the debut of IndyCar's new "DW12" car, which was named in honor Wheldon, who suffered life-ending injuries during a horrific 15-car crash in October 2011 at Las Vegas. The former series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner had resided in St. Petersburg.

In what was the first race since Wheldon's death, Castroneves paid tribute to his late-friend when, after taking the checkered flag, he got out of his car in turn 10, which was named "Dan Wheldon Way." Castroneves did his trademark climbing of the fence to salute the fans in that area of the racetrack. He then walked over to the other side of the turn and climbed another fence to pat a street sign in honor of Wheldon.

"The celebration was even better, having the Dan Wheldon sign in respect over there, and to celebrate, it was a memorable coincidence," Castroneves recalled. "It was just really great to remember him the way he lived, and not what happened the year before. It was a very emotional, crazy win."

Will Power, who is Castroneves' teammate at Team Penske, has claimed the pole position at St. Pete the past three years. He won this race in 2010 and then finished second here in 2011 before his seventh-place run in last year's event.

"It's a street course, and I really just enjoy it," Power said. "There's nothing that I would say suits me more than any other track. I go there and always have fun. That's the main thing."

Twenty-five teams are entered for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Series: IZOD IndyCar. Date: Sunday, March 24. Race: Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Site: Streets of St. Petersburg. Track: 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit. Start Time: 12:30 p.m. (ET). Laps: 110. Miles: 198. 2012 Winner: Helio Castroneves. Television: NBC Sports Network. Radio: IMS Radio Network/SIRIUS XM Satellite.

03/21 17:40:34 ET

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