IndyCar season-opener shows depth of field will fuel competition

James Hinchcliffe fessed up. Tears, not sweat from 110 taxing laps, began to blur his vision as his Chevrolet-powered No. 27 car glided across the finish line 1.0982 seconds ahead of Helio Castroneves in the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The tears were from joy, relief and gratitude.

It was the second-year Andretti Autosport driver's maiden IZOD IndyCar Series victory, the first by a Canadian in Indy car racing since Paul Tracy in 2007, and in the adopted hometown of 2005 race winner Dan Wheldon.

Hinchcliffe dedicated the victory to Wheldon, who was to drive the new car in 2012 but died in an October 2011 racing accident. A monument was dedicated to Wheldon three days earlier, along with a column reserved for winners of the St. Pete event.

Hinchcliffe's name will be added, joining luminaries Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Graham Rahal – all of whom competed March 24 in a stout lineup that will challenge for the championship through Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway.

"I don't think we can understate how deep the talent field is right now. It's as good as it's been arguably in the sport's history," said Hinchcliffe, who two seasons ago missed competing at St. Petersburg because of funding that didn't come through until the second race.

"The guys in the heyday of the mid-90s will tell you that; the competition is great. You see great racing all the way through the grid, and with more of the drivers returning from last year and a couple of new guys coming in I think we're set. With the same car, there's no reason the racing shouldn't be as good or better."

The race was suspenseful and entertaining from green flag to checkered, with the top-six finishers unsettled with two laps remaining on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street course. Crashes involving pole sitter Power and four-time series champion Franchitti added to the drama. Mechanical issues that relegated reigning series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay to 18th place and rookie Tristan Vautier, who started sixth but retired in 21st place, supplemented the intrigue of ninth running of the race under INDYCAR sanction.

It was, as winning team owner Michael Andretti said, a hard-earned victory. He expects the remaining 15 events, including three grueling doubleheader weekends, to be just as jumbled in the second year of the chassis-engine package.

Empirical evidence and hard numbers from the 2012 season (Hunter-Reay securing the title in the final race by a scant three points, eight different winners and eight different pole sitters in the 15 races, 17 different podium finishers) and the 2013 opener (seven different teams represented in the top 10, five different teams in the Firestone Fast Six qualifying to determine the Verizon P1 Award and the first three rows) back his prognostication.

"We worked so hard over the winter because we knew it was going to be that much harder to be competitive this year," said Andretti, whose team earned its 44th Indy car victory (two more than he had as a driver). "To come out the way we did, I think all weekend all of our cars were showing they had strength. For Hinch especially, he just was on it from the first practice on. He just did a heck of a job.

Hinchcliffe, of course, takes pride in the victory, but as he said the keen competition – and escalating from other young guns such as Simona de Silvestro (sixth place after starting third), teammate Marco Andretti (first podium finish on a road/street course since Toronto in July 2011) and Vautier – will require consistency to be a title contender.

"There are 18 races to go. It's early to call anybody a contender or rule anybody out," he said. "It's a good place to start. To be a contender in this series, you cannot make mistakes. It's so competitive, there's so many guys willing to pounce on anything you do wrong, whether it's in the pits, making a bad setup call or a driving error, people are going to take advantage of that.

"So I think the guy at the end of the year, or girl, that made the least mistakes as a team on the whole, those are going to be the ones you're going to see hoisting the championship trophy.

"We hope to be the ones."

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