Dario Franchitti steered clear of a destructive start and went on to dominate the opening round of the IZOD IndyCar Series in St Petersburg.
The champion led home his 2010 title rival Will Power at a comfortable distance to score his 27th IndyCar win, tying him with legend Johnny Rutherford on the all-time list.
"You see how close the field is, so every point matters," said Franchitti, who tied three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford for 10th all time on the Indy car list with 27 victories. "I had better watch out for the pace car because J.R. might be taking me out not wanting me to get 28."
Tony Kanaan starting his new partnership with KV with a very promising third, just ahead of Simona de Silvestro, as the HVM driver took a career-best fourth after her best IndyCar drive yet.
"She did a great job and made me run for my money," said Kanaan of De Silvestro, who finished 0.4571sec behind. "It's a great start for me and my new team."
Several frontrunners had immediately been wiped out in a chaotic start, triggered when Helio Castroneves' Penske nudged the back of Marco Andretti's car under braking for the first corner. Andretti spun into and over Ganassi's Scott Dixon, landing upside down as the tangle also collected his Andretti Autosport teammate Mike Conway and Penske's Ryan Briscoe, and forced Oriol Servia (Newman/Haas) to come to a halt in avoidance.
The uninjured Andretti and Conway's races were over, while Dixon, Briscoe and Castroneves' cars all needed lengthy repairs. Andretti paused to watch a replay of the wreck on a big screen before returning to his pit, where blamed Castroneves for causing the incident.
"Helio just drove it in on all of us," Andretti told the Associated Press. "He missed his braking point by a decent chunk. It's unfortunate."
Castroneves' view: "I'll have to look and see what happened, but it seems like I locked up the rear on the car. It's very disappointing, but we never gave up and we know we'll have better results next race."
Detractors of the series' new double-file restart format were given plenty more ammunition as a string of restart incidents followed, causing four yellows inside the first 15 laps. However, Newman/Haas' Servia reckoned it was more down to thew track than the rule change.
“The two-wide restarts were not a problem for me," said Servia. "It's just that the two-wide restarts at this track are tricky because the inside line here is so dirty, because this is an airport – there is paint, there is oil and that is why we had so many problems. If you look at the replay, it wasn't just the restarts, it was the start itself, too, and we always start two-wide. It's was just that the inside line here is one of the dirtiest of the season. It won't be the case at Barber (April 10).”
Among the drivers requiring repairs were Ganassi's Graham Rahal, who needed a new rear wing after a clash with Ana Beatriz (Dreyer & Reinbold), and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti), who was up to fourth until contact in a wild moment triggered by de Silvestro lunging down the inside of the lead pack.
That move paid off for de Silvestro, however. She had already got up from 17th to seventh, and then surged a further five places in a single dive at the fourth restart. It put de Silvestro second behind Franchitti, and ahead of Kanaan, Justin Wilson (Dreyer & Reinbold), and Power, the polesitter having been elbowed back in two restart traffic jams.
When the race finally started to run smoothly, Franchitti was able to pull away from de Silvestro, who kept Kanaan behind her until the first pitstops, during which Power managed to vault to second ahead of Kanaan and de Silvestro.
But rather than giving chase to Franchitti, Power had to focus on resisting constant attack from Kanaan, with de Silvestro catching back up with them as the race went into its closing stages. As de Silvestro put pressure on Kanaan, Power was able to get away, though Franchitti was uncatchable and won by 7.1sec. Kanaan held off de Silvestro for the final podium place by just 0.4sec, with the Swiss driver climbing all over the back of the Brazilian in the final laps. Although she couldn't get by, she had no regrets afterward.
"I'm really happy," she said. "I never would have thought, after starting 17th, that we'd finish fourth – and we were running second for quite a while there."
Adding spice to her late dice with Kanaan was the fact that her former engineer Micheal Cannon had moved abruptly over to Kanaan's KV squad the week before the race, forcing HVM to hire a last-minute replacement – but the Swiss driver said she was happy with her new colleague, Panther Racing alumni Brent Harvey.
"I'm happy to be working with Brent Harvey because he's really calm on the radio, which I liked," she said. "The team also did an unbelievable job. We had a few new issues to overcome in the beginning of the weekend, but during the race, everything went according to plan. They did great pit stops and I'm really proud to be part of this team."
Takuma Sato also scored an IndyCar career best as he took fifth for KV, holding Alex Tagliani, Raphael Matos and Vitor Meira at bay, the Schmidt, AFS and Foyt teams all taking extremely encouraging results as well.
Servia came back from a puncture after a brush with Briscoe and a pit penalty to take ninth ahead of Wilson, who fell back following a puncture and later a spin while chasing Servia, but regained two places on the final lap as J.R. Hildebrand (Panther) and Danica Patrick (Andretti) tangled ahead of him.
Sebastien Bourdais' eagerly anticipated return to American racing will have to wait a little longer, as the four-time Champ Car champion damaged his Dale Coyne car beyond quick repair in a warm-up accident and missed the race.
Results - 100 laps:
Pos Driver Team Time/Gap
1. Dario Franchitti Ganassi 2h00m59.6886s
2. Will Power Penske + 7.1612s
3. Tony Kanaan KV + 16.1045s
4. Simona de Silvestro HVM + 16.5616s
5. Takuma Sato KV + 29.9435s
6. Alex Tagliani Schmidt + 30.4655s
7. Raphael Matos AFS + 31.5227s
8. Vitor Meira Foyt + 35.7291s
9. Oriol Servia Newman/Haas + 49.1432s
10. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold + 56.8025s
11. Danica Patrick Andretti + 57.3418s
12. J.R. Hildebrand Panther + 1m02.9700s
13. Sebastian Saavedra Conquest + 2 laps
14. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold + 2 laps
15. James Jakes Coyne + 3 laps
16. Scott Dixon Ganassi + 4 laps
17. Graham Rahal Ganassi + 4 laps
18. Ryan Briscoe Penske + 5 laps
19. EJ Viso KV + 6 laps
20. Helio Castroneves Penske + 15 laps
Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 58 laps
Charlie Kimball Ganassi 38 laps
Mike Conway Andretti 1 lap
Marco Andretti Andretti 0 laps
Sebastien Bourdais Coyne DNS