St. Pete: Honda race report

Ryan Briscoe demonstrated he had an edge when it mattered the most -- late in the race -- to open the 2009 IndyCar Series with a finely-judged victory Sunday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Briscoe, who prior to today had yet to...

Ryan Briscoe demonstrated he had an edge when it mattered the most -- late in the race -- to open the 2009 IndyCar Series with a finely-judged victory Sunday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Briscoe, who prior to today had yet to finish an IndyCar event on the Florida Gulf Coast street circuit, passed surprise race leader Justin Wilson on a Lap 86 restart, then held off both Wilson and Vision Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay on restarts following two final caution periods to take an early lead in the 2009 championship race, and score his third career IndyCar victory, all with Team Penske.

The Honda HI9R Indy V-8 engine, featuring a revised and quieter exhaust system among its list of improvements for the new season, also ran with perfect reliability, as 22 drivers logged a total of 6,728 miles in practice, qualifying and racing around the demanding 1.8-mile street circuit, without a single engine-related failure.

For much of the race the man to beat was Wilson, trying to give the Dale Coyne Racing team its first open-wheel win since the team was founded in 1986. Wilson paced the field until his first pit stop on Lap 34. He briefly retook the lead when Briscoe made his second stop on Lap 67, then beat the Penske pilot out of the pits after his third and final stop on Lap 72.

It looked like a "Cinderella" victory might be in the cards for Wilson and his small, Chicago-based team until that fateful Lap 86 restart, when Briscoe was able to run just a bit deeper into the first turn before braking, and the lead changed hands for the final time. In the ensuing scramble, Hunter-Reay also moved ahead of a sliding Wilson to grab second in his race debut for Vision Racing.

For Hunter-Reay, it also was a dream result for a driver who was still looking for a ride as the start of the 2009 season approached. The winner of last year's Watkins Glen event was confirmed at Vision Racing only earlier this week, yet both team and driver performed as if they already had years of working together.

Polesitter Graham Rahal's chances for a repeat victory at St. Pete were dashed within seconds of the race start, when multi-car contact sent Rahal spinning into the grass, where an averting Alex Tagliani ran over his nose cone. Rahal was able to resume to finish a hard-earned seventh, unlike Mike Conway, who suffered a broken suspension on the same lap at Turn 2 after contact with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammate Darren Manning.

In his return to full time IndyCar competition after a one-year run in NASCAR, 2007 series champion Dario Franchitti finished fourth for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, while Tony Kanaan survived his part in the Lap One, Turn One dust-up to recover a fifth-place finish.

The 2009 IndyCar Series resumes in two weeks with another temporary street-circuit event, the Grand Prix of Long Beach, in Southern California on April 19.

Ryan Briscoe (#6 Team Penske Honda) Started 4th, finished 1st, 3rd career IndyCar victory, 1st win at St. Petersburg, in his first finish in three attempts: "It feels so good to finally get to the end of a race here, let alone win it! We've led a lot of laps around this place, but never got to the finish. Roger [Penske] made a great pit call early in the race that paid dividends for us. I always have 100 percent confidence in his decisions. Once we were at the front, we had a great fight with Justin Wilson. On the next-to-last restart he ran me very deep into the first corner -- we both braked as late as possible -- and congratulations to him, he was very fair. I hope to win a lot more like today this year."

Ryan Hunter-Reay (#21 Vision Racing Honda) Started 14th, finished 2nd; best IndyCar Series result for Vision Racing: "It's just unreal how the last couple of days have gone for us. The team was still making a [racing] seat for me at the start of the weekend, and here we are on the [victory] podium at the end. I can't thank Tony George and his family enough for having the confidence to put me in this car. The racing out there today was awesome, and I can't wait for [the Grand Prix of] Long Beach."

Justin Wilson (#19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda) started 2nd, finished 3rd, best IndyCar finish for Dale Coyne Racing: "It's been a fantastic weekend. We had a chance for victory, but it just slipped away from us at the end. I'm just happy we got a great result out of the weekend. Conditions were a bit difficult at the end for us, be we showed we can compete with everyone on road and street circuits."

-credit: honda racing

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Justin Wilson , Alex Tagliani , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Graham Rahal , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Ryan Briscoe , Chip Ganassi , Tony George , Mike Conway , Dale Coyne
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Dreyer & Reinbold Racing , Dale Coyne Racing