Helio Castroneves in his No. 3 Shell V-Power Team Penske DW12-Chevrolet broke a winless streak dating to September 2010 at Twin Ring Motegi, in winning the first race of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season on the streets of St. Petersburg.
Castroneves stopped for his traditional fence-climbing celebration at turn 10, realizing after the fact it was the corner at the intersection of the newly named Dan Wheldon Way. In a poignant tribute, Castroneves did his normal fence climb on one side of the left-hander, then ran across the track and climbed to the Dan Wheldon Way sign.
“It's been a little while, but it never gets old,” Castroneves said of the return of his fence-climbing celebrations. "I did say out loud, ‘If I start in the top six, I'll win this race.” And we did it; we are here in Victory Circle.”
“You can never question God's mysteries, and today, for me, I ended up stopping at Turn 10,” added an emotional Castroneves, who raised his head and pointed to the sky as he stood next to the green and white sign. “Honestly, I did not plan it. It was just the way it happened, and there was the sign Dan Wheldon Way. For me, and for all of us – the drivers and the fans – not having him here certainly we'll miss."
Scott Dixon finished second, ending his personal four-year drought of finishing 16th or worse in this race since 2008. Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe placed third and fourth, while Penske's Ryan Briscoe completed the top five.
“We seemed to have the strategy right, and Helio was just really fast,” Dixon said. “He was fast, but also able to save fuel. So we did a really good job for what we did at saving fuel, but obviously we didn't have the speed and we seemed to burn the tires up really quick. I haven't finished here in a while, so it's nice to come out here in St. Pete and get some good points.”
On an afternoon dictated by strategy and fuel mileage, Dixon (Ganassi) and Castroneves (Penske) worked their way to the front relatively early, with Dixon taking the lead for the first time as the race approached quarter-distance.
Positions changed regularly as everyone played out their strategies, but Dixon and Castroneves remained close throughout. The Brazilian's attack eventually came in the form of a great pass around the outside at Turn 1 on the 73rd lap, and from that point he put down the hammer and opened a large gap that he would maintain to the end.
An abnormal second half of the top 10 included Simon Pagenaud sixth, up from 16th on the grid after a 10-spot grid penalty, then polesitter Will Power, E.J. Viso, Charlie Kimball and Justin Wilson. Rookie Josef Newgarden lost the last top-10 spot to Wilson on the last lap. Dario Franchitti finished 13th, with the top Lotus finisher Alex Tagliani in 15th.
“Our Verizon car was very good. We just got shuffled back a bit there after the first pit stop and we just couldn't make up the ground we needed.” related Power,. "I'm very happy for Helio,” he added. “He really deserves this victory and it's great for Team Penske to start the season with a win.
Varying pit strategies jumbled the order throughout the race, and while there was still passing up and down the field, a healthy amount was missed by the live TV feed. The race ran largely incident-free, with most of the retirements mechanically induced.
Seven of the eight cars that did not finish were silenced by mechanical issues. Among the victims were Takuma Sato, who led twice and ran very strongly in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry before being forced to pull out on lap 73, and Sebastien Bourdais, who had his Lotus-powered Dragon Racing entry (which had only been shaken down for the first time on Friday) in the top 10 before he too dropped out. Bourdais would have led as he ran second at one point, but pitted with the leaders. Mike Conway also ran in the top five but was sidelined with gearbox gremlins.
Rubens Barrichello (KV) spent much of his IndyCar debut in 13th place before being dropped to 17th by a late pit stop.
“I had fun out there. Unfortunately, we had a meter reading problem so I ran out of fuel at the end," said the F1 veteran. "I enjoyed the race and dicing with other cars, but would have liked to have been able to push more. It has been a good learning curve this weekend and I look forward to being back in the car in a few days for the next race.”
Results - 99 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Gap
1. Helio Castroneves Penske DW12-Chevrolet
2. Scott Dixon Ganassi DW12-Honda + 5.5292s
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti DW12-Chevrolet + 7.5824s
4. James Hinchcliffe Andretti DW12-Chevrolet + 10.6526s
5. Ryan Briscoe Penske DW12-Chevrolet + 11.7854s
6. Simon Pagenaud Schmidt-Hamilton DW12-Honda + 31.2623s
7. Will Power Penske DW12-Chevrolet + 34.6582s
8. EJ Viso KV DW12-Chevrolet + 35.5943s
9. Charlie Kimball Ganassi DW12-Honda + 43.1425s
10. Justin Wilson Dale Coyne DW12-Honda + 44.3141s
11. Josef Newgarden Fisher Hartman DW12-Honda + 44.8275s
12. Graham Rahal Ganassi DW12-Honda + 45.1080s
13. Dario Franchitti Ganassi DW12-Honda + 45.8468s
14. Marco Andretti Andretti DW12-Chevrolet + 1 lap
15. Alex Tagliani Herta DW12-Lotus + 1 lap
16. Oriol Servia Dreyer & Reinbold DW12-Lotus + 1 lap
17. Rubens Barrichello KV DW12-Chevrolet + 2 laps
18. Ed Carpenter Carpenter DW12-Chevrolet + 2 laps
Did not finish:
JR Hildebrand Panther DW12-Chevrolet 95 laps
Mike Conway Foyt DW12-Honda 74 laps
Sebastien Bourdais Dragon DW12-Lotus 72 laps
Takuma Sato Rahal DW12-Honda 72 laps
Katherine Legge Dragon DW12-Lotus 58 laps
Simona de Silvestro HVM DW12-Lotus 21 laps
Tony Kanaan KV DW12-Chevrolet 20 laps
James Jakes Dale Coyne DW12-Honda 18 laps