Castroneves goes for fourth win at St. Pete
After winning the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2012, Helio Castroneves bounded to the fencing in Turn 10 and patted the Dan Wheldon Way street sign.
The scene reverberated in his mind throughout the season, and he takes it into the season opener this week.
"Having the Dan Wheldon sign in respect over there and to celebrate, it was a memorable coincidence and it was just really great, great to remember him the way he lived and not what happened the year before," said Castroneves of the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and St. Petersburg resident who died in a racing accident the previous October. "So it was a very emotional, crazy win."
An unveiling of a Wheldon memorial and Victory Circle monument will take place at the track March 21.
Castroneves, the only multiple winner in the nine years of racing on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit, and 24 other entrants kick off the season at St. Petersburg this weekend. It's the second season of the 2.2-liter, turbocharged engines from Chevrolet and Honda and Dallara chassis for teams and drivers, and Castroneves expects tight competition through all 19 races.
"As every year passes by I expect the competition to get tougher, but on the other hand we keep improving so I think we have a good chance to repeat our win," said Castroneves, who will drive the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske car this weekend. "I really like St. Petersburg, the layout, the atmosphere, the fans, plus it's the start of a new season so everyone is fresh and ready to go.
"It's a place where everything starts; a special season that you can see it's going to be very exciting."
Castroneves also was runner-up in 2008 and placed fourth in 2010. Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing has a trio of second-place finishes, and Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology has four third-place results in addition to being runner-up in the inaugural series race on a non-oval.
Castroneves' teammate, Will Power, has started from the pole each of the past three years (with a corresponding victory, runner-up and seventh-place finish). Castroneves battled all of the above for track position through much of the 100-lap race last year (the distance has been increased to 110 laps for this weekend).
"The end was awesome, but the beginning of the race was actually pretty good," said Castroneves, who ended a winless drought of more than a year. "We started in fifth place and just managed to stay out of trouble. As soon as some of the leaders made a pit stop, we decided to stay out, and from there on it was just a matter of keep going over the pit stops.
"We were able to come back in second place behind the Ganassi guys, Scott Dixon, and we were able to make a great move on the outside, Turn 1 (of Lap 73), and passed for the win. So we were extremely excited and happy to start the season like that."
Since 1993, 12 drivers have won the season-opening race and gone on to win the championship (CART, Champ Car, IZOD IndyCar Series). A series title is the lone highlight missing from the CV of Castroneves, who completed all but three laps in the 2012 season and led the field with 12 top-10 finishes. It's a focus this year, along with a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
"Another year, 2013, and we're looking very strong again," said Castroneves, who finished fourth in the 2012 championship standings (the fourth time in the top five in the past five years). "The (car) seem to be a little bit better, which I think everybody went through all the phases of learning the car (in 2012). I'm really, really excited for 2013 to start."