Helio Captures Touching Win at St. Pete
The opening race for the 2012 IndyCar series in St. Petersburg was an extremely emotional start to a much anticipated season. With the event being in Dan Wheldon’s American home town, and it being the first race since his untimely death, many of the prerace thoughts and comments were focused around Wheldon and his family. Dan’s sister Holly dropped the green flag for lap one, and the new race year was underway. Team Penske dominated the early going leading the first 20 laps between Power and Briscoe, but with an early Lotus caution on lap 13 Mr. Penske decided, as he normally does, to have one of his cars off strategy from the rest of the field. Penske seems to do this in every race that has an early caution, so Will Power raced into the pits even before the caution was officially waved on the race track. After leading the first 11 laps, Power wouldn’t lead again for the rest of the race. I questioned the move when it happened since Power was upfront at the time, and Rodger usually does this with the car furthest back in the field… which would have been Helio at the time. Once Power was behind cars instead of leading, he was unable to turn the lap speeds necessary to get back to the lead pack; however Power did finish 7th, helping Team Penske land all three of his cars in the top ten (Helio 1, Briscoe 5, Power 7). The driver that led the most laps during the race was the 9 of Scott Dixon who led 37 laps, and went on to finish second. Much was made during the race of Dixon’s previous struggles at the track, but that discussion was all for not as Dixon showed why those finishes were flukes by running near the front all race long.
Top race performers also included two Andretti Autosport cars in Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, who finished third and fourth respectively. Other than Marco who finished 14th Andretti’s team, in my opinion, exceeded expectations in the first race by placing two cars into the top five. This may partly be due to the slight advantage the Chevrolet engines currently occupy over the other two power plant manufacturers. Chevy qualified seven cars in the top ten, and claimed six of the top 8 spots in Sunday’s race. Though Chevy dominated the race, it’s clear there are still kinks that need to be worked out with the battery and electrical systems, which took Tony Kanaan out early. Lotus only had two of five cars finish the race, and also had two cars die on the track for what sounds like unknown reasons. Bourdais seemed poised to finish the race in descent position as the top Lotus car, but mechanical failures also took him out of the race. There were 10 drivers credited with leading a lap in Sunday’s race, and I was happy to see Takuma Sato lead 11 of them. The former F1 driver has struggled much of his time in the series, but at times also shows flashes of brilliance, which are many times overlooked due to abrupt bad luck, or silly driving mistakes. It was much of the same luck in this race for Sato, who led nine laps early in the race, returned to lead lap 71, entered the pits with the lead on lap 71 and never got back on the race track. This guy has really taken his lumps in the past few seasons and I for one hope his luck can turn around this season with the RLL Racing Team.
Shortly after Sato’s departure Castroneves took control of the race late by not leading until lap 69, he took the lead again on lap 75 and never looked back. Helio finished the race having more than a five second gap on Scott Dixon when he crossed the line. Quickly after his victory Helio raced to scale the fence at Dan Wheldon Way, having a heart wrenching moment while pounding his chest simultaneously with the Dan Wheldon Way sign… a scene that instantly put a lump in my throat and covered my body in goose bumps. I have never been a big Helio fan, but I have to admit I really enjoyed seeing him win Sunday, thanks to his post race actions. I believe Helio and TK are two of the closest drivers with Dan, and two guys I knew would make the moment about Dan rather than being about themselves, and that’s the way it should have been.