ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion opened the 19-race season in 18th place. The Verizon P1 Award winner and 2012 championship runner-up wound up 16th. The four-time series title-holder exited early in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of St. Petersburg because of contact.
Meanwhile, there were six drivers competing for a podium spot (representing five countries, four continents and two sexes) on the final two laps of the season opener.
Drama punctuated the 110 laps on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, with the top six undecided until the final 100 yards. Ahead of it all -- out of the slicing and dicing, bumps and bruised egos -- for the final 26 laps was James Hinchcliffe in the bright green No. 27 GoDaddy.com car.
The 26-year-old overtook Helio Castroneves in Turn 1 of a Lap 85 restart, conserved fuel in the Chevrolet-powered car for Andretti Autosport and held on for a 1.0982-second victory. He's the first Canadian to win an Indy car race since Paul Tracy in 2007 at Cleveland and gave Michael Andretti his 44th Indy car victory (two more than he had as a driver).
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"Man, that was a tough race," said Hinchcliffe, who is the 207th driver to win an Indy car race. "Last year we qualified fourth, finished fourth. Qualified fourth again and I thought that was kind of our cursed number there for a bit.
"Then the big thing that people were saying early on in the season is 'What is it going to take to win?' And the big thing was minimizing mistakes. We had a good car. Not sure if we had the fastest car over a lap but I'll tell you what, we nailed the pit stops. The GoDaddy car was really good on those black tires. That last restart, man, Helio Castroneves ... he's a three-time winner of this race. He's on the reds. He makes a mistake. I get by, but I'm thinking 'Yeah, he has 30 laps to get this back.'
"I just can't be happier. It is so awesome."
Castroneves, the 2012 race winner, was second and Marco Andretti overtook Simona de Silvestro in Turn 1 of the final lap to earn place third (his best road/street course finish since Toronto in 2011).
"We were starting to lose (on the alternate Firestone tires) with about four laps to go and I already went from hero to zero and I said, 'You know what? I don't want to finish this race without any points at all,' '' said Castroneves, who is seeking his first series victory. "Great day for us. It's a shame we let that one go, but Hinch did a hell of a job."
All 25 drivers said the 2013 season would be the most competitive in recent Indy car memory, and the opener lived up to the billing.
"It's a good start. Looks like we are going to have to beat (Hinchcliffe) this year," Andretti said of his second-year teammate.
Will Power, who earned his 30th Indy car pole, led the initial 26 laps before Castroneves made an inside move on a restart and it went downhill from there. Under caution, the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car driven by JR Hildebrand sprung over the right side of Power's No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car, causing a flat rear tire and bent mirror. The team spent two pit stops to repair and check for damage. Then, while running 12th, the rear end of Power's car caught the Turn 4 tire barrier. He finished 16th.
"It’s too bad because the Verizon car was definitely fast," he said. "(About the incident): He came over and apologized after the race. He said he was just looking down at his steering wheel and he just ran over the top of me. It’s just a mistake but that happens in racing. Then I made another mistake there at the end and it cost us four more places. Tough day but we just have to move forward and look ahead to Barber (April 7)."
Ryan Hunter-Reay, who started and finished third at St. Pete last March on his march to the series title, encountered issues on an early pit stop and wasn't in contention.
Tony Kanaan finished fourth and Scott Dixon, who started 20th, overtook de Silvestro at the start-finish line for fifth. E.J. Viso, in his first race for Andretti Autosport advanced 15 spots to seventh.
“It’s been a good weekend for us," said de Silvestro, who started a career-best third in her first race with KV Racing Technology. "Unfortunately, we lost a few positions at the end there. We kind of ran out of tires at the end. I think we can be pretty happy with sixth.
"Now we know what we have to work on for the next race. It was really cool to be up front all day with Will, Hinch and everybody. I think we can learn a lot from this weekend to have a better result at the next race. I really want to thank Chevy and my Nuclear Clean Air Energy sponsors for all their support. I’m really excited to get to Barber and see what we can do there.”