|Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, celebrates after winning the IndyCar Series' Honda Grand Prix auto race in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday, March 25, 2012. (AP Photo/LAT,MIchael L. Levitt)|
Castroneves gets off to strong start to season
The partnership between Helio Castroneves and Penske Racing was strong and steady from the very start, and wins were expected every season.
He climbed his first fence after a victory at Belle Isle in 2000, and the celebration became almost routine: Castroneves celebrated a total of 25 wins -- including three Indianapolis 500s -- with Penske over the next 11 years.
His success dried up in 2011, though, as Castroneves suffered through his worst season in IndyCar. He went winless for the first time since he joined the season in 2001, and finished a career-worst 11th in the standings. His 34 laps led was also a career low.
So Castroneves came into this season determined to get off to a good start, and did just that with a win in Sunday's season-opener at St. Petersburg. It was his first victory since Japan in September, 2010.
"It's always important to start strong in the championship," he said. "For us, certainly it's even more because of the season that we had last year. For our group, it's important. We never lost confidence. We never stopped believing. Especially this offseason, with the tests that we've been doing, we've been up there in testing, helping each other, so we never stopped believing.
"It's important for us as a group to know that we can do it."
Castroneves now goes to Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, where he won in 2010, as the IndyCar Series points leader.
And, a year after Dario Franchitti and Will Power combined to win 10 of the 17 races, Castroneves has shown that this season truly may be a wide-open title race. One race does not make a season, but the opener at St. Pete showed the field is wide enough to have many different contenders.
Scott Dixon was the trendy preseason pick to unseat teammate Franchitti's run of three consecutive championships, but overcoming the bad luck that's plagued him at the start of the last few seasons is going to be key. He got off to a good start with a second-place finish to Castroneves at St. Pete -- his best finish in five years on that street course.
"I think it's important, especially for us, we've definitely struggled the last few years probably with the first four races," Dixon said. "Consistency, if you look backwards with Dario over the last couple of years, that's what's won the championship."
Right behind Dixon was Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe, who made his St. Pete debut after missing the opener in last season's rookie of the year campaign.
It was Hunter-Reay's best finish in three years, and left him wondering if he possibly could have done more. Fuel strategy forced him to conserve gas at the end of the race, and settle for third rather than try to run down Dixon ahead of him. But after finishing seventh the last two seasons in the championship standings, Hunter-Reay is thinking big picture.
"To really just start the season off on the right foot and log the points early -- this race counts as much as the last one," he said. "We want a points race this year, we really do. Last year I came out really aggressive. This year I want to come out aggressive, as well, but with the big picture in mind. We want to fight for the championship."
Hinchcliffe, in his debut for Andretti Autosport, tied his career-best fourth-place finish. His return to Barber marks the anniversary of his IndyCar debut.
Same for Simon Pagenaud, who made his IndyCar debut at Barber last year as a replacement for Ana Beatriz. He finished eighth, in the first of three races last season.
Now he's back for a full schedule with Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, and was possibly the surprise of St. Pete. Pagenaud advanced to the Fast Six final round of qualifying -- ahead of Dixon and Franchitti -- and held on to qualify sixth for Sunday's race.
Although he had to drop 10 spots on the grid for an unapproved engine change, he made it back up and finished sixth.
Pagenaud admitted Wednesday the result was better than imagined.
"I knew we would be in the mix, but I was surprised we were right out of the box," said Pagenaud, who has made the move to IndyCar from ALMS. "It's the first time in my career I've had such a chance to showcase what I could do. I think it's just very good timing for me. We can definitely fight in top six and if we are consistent."
Asked if he's a title contender this season, Pagenuad didn't hesitate: "Why not?" he asked.
Same goes for Castroneves, who believes things have turned around for him in time for a big season. He's approaching this year as if everyone has a clean slate with the new IndyCar and multiple engine manufacturers.
"Last year, unfortunately because of many issues, some of them were mine, some of them were bad luck, some of them were because of the new rules we have with the double-file restarts ... I did not feel comfortable," he said. "I think now at this point, with the new car, new engine, it gives you a fresh start."