TAMPA BAY – IndyCar finally got a chance to move on Sunday after the 2011 season ended in the worst way imaginable.
Helio Castroneves put his best move on to get his worst season behind him, too.
Castroneves led the final 26 laps to win the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, taking his record third victory on the downtown streets to break an 18-race winless streak.
“This was just what we needed,” Castroneves said.
He also could have been talking about the series.
Sunday’s race was the season opener and the first IndyCar event since St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon died in a crash Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sunday also was the first race with the Dallara DW12, the new chassis named in honor of Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was crucial in developing it.
Wheldon’s sister, Holly, dropped the green flag at the start and presented the winner’s trophy to Castroneves at the end.
The 36-year-old Brazilian, coming off his first winless season since 1999 in CART, passed Scott Dixon for the race’s key move. Shortly after both came out of the pits, Dixon passed Castroneves. But the Penske Racing driver struck back by outbraking Dixon and overtaking him on the outside of Turn 1 of Lap 73 of 100 for second place.
“I wasn’t actually pushing to the limit,” Castroneves said. “I was pushing but in a conservative way.”
Penske drivers have won five of the eight St. Petersburg races. Castroneves, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, also won in 2006 and ’07. All three times he has won here, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon has finished second.
“Helio was a man on a mission,” said Dixon, who led the most laps, 37, around the 1.8-mile course. “I was probably a little too cautious on Turn 1 when he did go around the outside.”
Both ended the race on used soft-compound tires, called reds for their sidewall color. But Dixon said the ones he took in his final pit stop were too worn.
“I abused them way too much in qualifying,” he said. “It wasn’t horrible, but I think if we had actually run blacks (harder compound tires), it would have been a better option.”
After passing Dixon, Castroneves built breathing room and took the lead by getting past JR Hildebrand, who led briefly as the contenders pitted. That move, also in Turn 1 but to the inside, left Dixon behind, and he lost a few seconds. He finished 5.5292 seconds behind.
Ryan Hunter-Reay took third for Andretti Autosport followed by teammate James Hinchcliffe and Penske’s Ryan Briscoe.
The race ran under sunny skies and a track that dried after overnight rains.
“We’ll put the rubber down pretty quick at a place like this,” Hunter-Reay said of the weather’s effects. “The only difference is that we didn’t get a warmup to try some things in the morning that we really wanted to try.”
Pole-sitter Will Power of Penske led the first 11 laps but pitted early and fell back in the field, running 15th halfway through. The 2010 St. Petersburg champion was not a factor after that and finished seventh.
“We were going for a three-stop (strategy),” he said. “(After that), it was traffic; could not pass.”
Castroneves gave Chevrolet a victory in its first IndyCar race after a six-year hiatus.
Sunday also was a clean, relief-filled return to racing for IndyCar after a five-month period of absorbing the tragedy that befell the series with Wheldon’s death.
“I had the butterflies going on in my stomach (before the race), which is a good sign,” Castroneves said. “But they were flying in formation. They weren’t like crazy butterflies.
“Everything was under control.”