In 78 days, cars will be moved to pit lane – a taxiway of Albert Whitted Airport – for the initial practice session of the 2013 season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Defending (and three-time) race winner Helio Castroneves started counting the days in mid-December at the final testing opportunity of 2012. Castroneves ended a winless drought of more than a year by prevailing on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit last March 25.

Castroneves, driving the No. 3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske Chevrolet, overtook Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon for second place on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 73 and went on to score the 26th win of his Indy car career.

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Castroneves expects another close battle on the scenic streets of St. Petersburg and the 19-race season in general.

“You’ll see faster lap times because people have one season of experience with the car and the (Chevrolet and Honda) engines have improved,” the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said. “We learned a lot this first year, and every year that passes by I expect the competition to be tougher. We’ve also improved so I feel we’ll be in the chase.”

For a third consecutive year, the event billed as the “World’s Fastest Spring Break Party” will mark the beginning of the IZOD IndyCar Series season.

“Being the first race of the season is an honor and we expect to see more great racing in 2013 with the IZOD IndyCar Series having completed a full year with the new DW12 chassis,” event GM and vice president Tim Ramsberger said. “With all the sights and sounds that racing has to offer, it is truly an experience that you have to be a part of in person.”

Castroneves agreed.

“The layout, the atmosphere, the people and weather … I really enjoy it,” he said.

The ninth Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is scheduled for March 22-24. Nineteen races, including weekend doubleheaders at Detroit, Toronto and Houston, are on the 2013 schedule.

Watch 2012 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg highlights