ST. PETERSBURG — James Hinchcliffe, the Canadian driver poised to become IndyCar's next star, grabbed his first career victory Sunday.
Fittingly it came at St. Petersburg, the adopted hometown of the late Dan Wheldon, the driver who signed to drive the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport shortly before his death in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas.
The open seat then went to Hinchcliffe, who drove the bright green No. 27 to victory in front of Wheldon's wife and two children.
“This is his hometown; this is his car,” said Hinchcliffe, who will be added now to the Wheldon monument unveiled Thursday at Turn 10 on the course. “Knowing my face will be on that memorial, that's really special.”
Hinchcliffe passed Helio Castroneves on the final restart to take the lead and held on to win by 1.09 seconds over the defending race winner. He became the first Canadian to win since Paul Tracy's 2007 victory at Cleveland in the CART Series, and Hinchcliffe waved the Canadian flag as he climbed from his car.
The win showed Andretti didn't lose a step over the offseason, when the organization turned it up a notch even after Ryan Hunter-Reay's championship.
It paid off Sunday when Hinchcliffe got the first IndyCar win for sponsor GoDaddy, who was with Danica Patrick in the series before her 2012 move to NASCAR, and with Marco Andretti's third-place finish. It was Andretti's career-best finish on the downtown street course, and he used a late push to pass Simona de Silvestro with two laps to go to get the podium finish.
“I've been working so hard in the offseason, not just in the physically, but on places where I've been lacking and these places have been a weak point for me,” said Andretti, who praised de Silvestro but said in the closing laps, “I had to muscle her a little bit. I needed a podium.”
De Silvestro lost two more spots — to Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon — before the checkered flag. She settled for sixth but was thrilled about her debut race for KV Racing Technology, which went fourth and sixth with Kanaan and de Silvestro.
Mario Andretti was among the many people who stopped after the race to congratulate the Swiss driver.
“We were running up front the whole day and it was really cool to be keeping up with them,” she said. “I think we can really learn from this and try to be better next week. We all know we can be fast and qualify fast and run up front. Now we just have to minimize mistakes so we can win races.”
The race was dominated early by Will Power, who lost the lead to Penske Racing teammate Castroneves on a restart and then lost another position to Hinchcliffe on another restart. It put him back in third for a huge chunk of the race until a bizarre incident under caution with JR Hildebrand, who inexplicably drove on top of Power's car.
The contact damaged Power's side mirror and caused a flat tire, forcing him to pit road for repairs that dropped him to 16th, where he finished.
Hildebrand took the blame.
“We were getting ready for the restart, I was dialing my knobs back and talking to team about the start,” Hildebrand said. “Guys just slowed up, and I ran into the back of him. It was totally my fault. As soon as I hit him, I couldn't help from going anywhere. It was totally my fault.
“I'm super sorry for Will. We were just trying to get back on lead lap. I was doing too much all at once when the field slowed up there.”
But Power was more bothered by the restarts, and said he's spoken to race director Beaux Barfield about protocol in the past.
“What are we going to do about second place taking off? He just keeps allowing people to do it,” Power said. “And then JR just ran over the back of me to ruin the day. He said he was just looking at the steering wheel. Just a mistake, man, it happens.”
It was just one of a series of strange incidents and accidents that plagued the race.
Four-time champion Dario Franchitti's weekend full of struggles came to an early end when, minutes after pitting and on cold tires, he crashed into the wall just 19 laps into the race. Franchitti blamed the mistake on pushing too hard to overcome deficiencies with his Chip Ganassi Racing car.
“We truly struggled and I just said to Chip `I had to try to make it up somewhere,“’ Franchitti said. “I just stepped over the line there on cold tires. Hit a bump in three … was in the marbles and then the wall. Totally my mistake. Just pushing too hard trying to get back on level pegging somehow.”
Oriol Servia used pit strategy to take over the lead, his first laps out front since Indianapolis two years ago. But the Spanish driver needed luck or rain to stay out front and got neither. He pitted from the lead for fuel and was stranded on the service road with a gearbox problem.
Mechanical problems also plagued defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and rookie Tristan Vautier, who ran inside the top six until retiring early from his IndyCar debut.
“The team did a fantastic job and unfortunately a spare part, exhaust, broke, so there was not much we could control about that,” Vautier said. “It was a great day, I had so much fun. It was so good to run in the streets. We cannot be mad at anyone. It's just part of racing.”
It was a rough ending for the Sam Schmidt-owned cars: Simon Pagenaud's day also ended early with a mechanical problem.
“Just a miserable weekend,” Pagenaud said.