In a 100-lap street brawl promoted by Andretti Green Promotions, it seemed appropriate that the four members of Andretti Green Racing would sweep the inaugural Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg Indy Racing League IndyCar Series race today.
The #27 ArcaEx car driven by Scot Dario Franchitti took third and polesitter Bryan Herta in the #7 XM Satellite Dallara/Honda finished fourth. The margin of victory for Wheldon was 1.4577 seconds and, once the quartet passed the checkered flags they performed doughnuts in the wide- open area at Turn 1.
The IRL's first street course contest took place under Chamber of Commerce conditions in this city on Florida's west coast. Every seat appeared to be filled and fans arrived early to take part in the festive atmosphere surrounding the momentous occasion. The League's competitors didn't disappoint the crowd.
Wheldon had only qualified ninth, the slowest of AGR's four entries but never exited the top ten. He quietly made his way to the front of the field and into position to challenge for the lead, following Kanaan for some of the time, leading him for others.
When the final of five cautions ended and the field broke for the wide expanse of turn 1, Wheldon was right there to pick up the pieces when his teammate and Team Target's Ryan Briscoe came together in the tenth turn. Wheldon snuck by Kanaan on lap 91 and was never challenged.
Kanaan had the wildest ride of the quartet as he fought back from running over an air hose on his first stop, the resulting black flag and drive- through penalty (going as far down the field as 17th). Passing cars inside and out Kanaan was up to ninth by the time he made his second stop for fuel and tires.
"We had a great car; we've got a great team. It was a long day but it was very exciting," Kanaan explained afterwards. "My point of view on the Briscoe incident is that he turned in on my car when I was in the lead. I'm sure he has another version but that's what I saw," he shrugged. Briscoe ended up in the tires; Kanaan on podium.
"I played the game and lost the race. This kind of stuff reminds me of when I raced against (aggressive) Paul Tracy" in the former CART series.
Franchitti had a birds-eye view of the contretemps and some of his own. "We had a fuel tank problem in the pits and couldn't get a full load, so we had to keep making more stops than anyone else," Franchitti explained. In taking his second straight top-five finish, Franchitti said he had a pretty good car but "didn't want to put too much pressure" on his teammates. "Still, I'm disappointed not to do better."
Behind the AGR steamroller, Vitor Meira emerged in fifth with the #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda. Meira began the race in 12th after a tough qualifying session and had a fairly quiet afternoon of it as he watched carnage around him. "Wow, that was a wild race. Buddy [teammate Rice] and I got into each other in the pack at one time; it was really crazy there.
"If I had a good qualifying run on Saturday, things would have been different for us. We had a pretty good car but it is tough to come from back in the pack," Meira acknowledged. Scott Dixon earned sixth in his battered #9 Team Target Panoz/Toyota after coming together with Kosuke Matsuura in the 14th corner just after the fourth restart on lap 83.
"My team did a great job preparing what should have been a top-three car today, but we took a gamble that didn't quite pay off" when Dixon stayed on the tires he started the race with for two stints. "They really held up but we had a lot of understeer, especially on cold tires and that really killed our last stint."
Buddy Rice took seventh in the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda after qualifying 17th and thought "it was a great showing for us today with all our problems in qualifying and then in the race. We were competitive and we got out of sequence," not pitting on the first yellow. "I thought I had a right rear tire going down so I came back in for another stop but we got points" after failing to finish the first two events on the calendar.
Darren Manning finished ninth with his #10 Team Target Panoz/Toyota and led three laps, fighting with Kanaan and banging wheels like they were racing NASCAR NEXTEL Cup cars. Alex Barron rounded out the top ten with the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota "We didn't have the speed to run with the leaders," Barron said.
Of 21 starters, 12 were classified as finishers as contact took its toll on the 14-corner St Pete streets.
The wheel-banging began with an improbable pass by Helio Castroneves on A.J. Foyt IV on the 11th lap. The #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota was trying to lap Foyt's #14 Panoz/Toyota between turns 12 and 13 and the two touched wheels, ending the day for the second starter and the kid who began the race 21st.
Castroneves had "high hopes, especially because our car was handling so well," he said. "I was just trying to survive," the Texan countered. Their incident produced nine laps of caution and many of the leaders pitted. Briscoe did not and neither did Barron, Danica Patrick in the #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda, Rice and Manning.
At the green flag, Briscoe began to pull out a lead by using his Formula One experience and was turning laps in excess of 100mph as the balance of the field tried to catch him. They continued to run this way until Briscoe and Patrick pitted on lap 37 as the yellow flew once more to tow in disabled Ed Carpenter in the #20 Vision Racing Dallara/Toyota who spun in turn 8.
When the green flew again on lap 40, Herta led the field for the second time but had to slow when Scott Sharp made contact with the turn 1 wall on lap 44 after banging wheels with Franchitti. The #8 Delphi Panoz/Honda had started 20th after a qualifying penalty and that marked the end of the day for him.
Sharp said his spotter "told me Dario was on the inside and I don't know if he hit the curb or not, but he pushed right up into me." Franchitti, of course had another view. Herta retained the point when green flew again on lap 47 and was pursued by Wheldon until pitting on lap 62.
With the exchange of stops, Briscoe again assumed the lead and he did lead the most laps of anyone today, pacing the field three times for a total of 43 laps. Even with pit stops the Aussie kept the point until his run-in with Kanaan. "We had a truly amazing race where the team did everything right.
"We struggled all weekend long but from the start of the race the car was perfect. We had the perfect strategy," Briscoe stated, "and we had perfect pit stops. We led laps and were up front fighting for the win and that was awesome. To end it this way is very disappointing."
Caution for Scheckter's faux pas lasted from laps 79-82 but green only waved another five laps before Tomas Enge in the #2 ROCKSTAR Dallara/Chevy placed his nose into the gearbox of Sam Hornish Jr.'s #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and landed them both in the turn 4 run-off.
The final green flag came out on lap 91 and that was when Kanaan and Briscoe had their property dispute.
In the drivers' meeting this morning, IRL president Brian Barnhart told all 21 that passes had to be started before a corner's apex. "Coming off turn 9 and into the kink, I honestly made sure to brake late, but I took a look and Kanaan wasn't there. I was very surprised by the move because that was a risky passing zone and he simply threw his car into the turn. I guess we'll call it a 'racing incident'," the disappointed Briscoe said.
His day was done, Kanaan got snookered by Wheldon, and that's how they called it a day. The only other drivers running at the finish were Roger Yasukawa in the #24 Racing for Kids/IPA Dallara/Honda and Patrick's #16 car, which had a lengthy stop to repair fifth gear. Matsuura had to retire five laps before the end when his #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz/Honda began to smoke.
All involved proclaimed the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg a delightful success, but none more so than the denizens of Andretti Green Racing. They swept the first four spots, promoted an excellent street course contest, co- owner Michael Andretti's son Marco won the Menards Infiniti Pro Series race earlier in the day and all of this occurred on team co-owner Kim Green's birthday.
As the IndyCar Series teams recover from taking their show to the streets, Wheldon leads the point standings with 134, Kanaan lies second with 110, Hornish holds on to third with 105 points, followed by Castroneves with 82 and Meira with 81.
The next contest on the docket takes place at Honda's personal Twin Ring Motegi 1.5-mile oval and will feature at least a 22-car field with the return of Paul Dana and the #91 Ethanol/Hemelgarn Dallara/Toyota and the addition of Jeff Bucknum in a second Dreyer & Reinbold Dallara/Honda. It takes place on April 30th but will televise in the United States a night earlier.
Certainly this IndyCar Series season - if the first three races are any indication - is setting up to be a barn burner, and what more could anyone want for a tenth anniversary year?