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Penske Drivers Dominate as Castroneves and Power Post Wins
Author: Mark W. Theisen
April 3rd 2012 - View All Photos Here

The eagerly anticipated 2012 Indy Racing League series got under way two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, Florida with the running of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The event was the first since the tragic death of Dan Wheldon last fall in Las Vegas and it truly was an emotionally charged weekend.

Everywhere one turned there were remembrances’ of the two time Indianapolis 500 champion.  First the race was in the city Wheldon adopted as “home” and where the city officials named a street in his honor.  Next add the debut of the new Indy Racing League car, the DW12, named in Wheldon’s honor as he was the developmental driver prior to his untimely death.  Next add the fact that Wheldon’s sister, Holly, was on hand as grand marshal and not to mention the countless signs, banners and references to Wheldon and it was clear that this truly was an event to remember and honor a fallen competitor.

The race also marked the debut of competition in the engine department for the fist time in 9 years with Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda, who had performed the role as sole supplier to the series admirably for those nine years.

With the new chassis, new engines and a lot of new talent that was assembled in a short period of time the series was facing many questions prior to the green flag at St. Petersburg, most notably equipment reliability and in the end that question was answered quite well.

The “old” guard shown through from the outset, as expected, with series giants Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing as the forefront, as they had for most of the past nine years.

With the “boat load” of experience, not only with their drivers, but in the engineering department it was expected that Penske, with Chevrolet, and Ganassi, with Honda would be at the front and they were, but much of the competition was not that far behind when the checkered flag fell at St. Petersburg and then a week later at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama.

Ryan Briscoe gave Penske and Chevrolet their first pole at St. Petersburg and Helio Castroneves broke and 18 race winless streak when he passed Ganassi’s Scott Dixon late in the race to give Chevrolet its first win in its initial outing.

If one could have hand picked a driver to win this event it would have had to been the emotional Castroneves.  After the victory, in his own style, he first scaled the fence near the start finish line, and then went to the fence in front of the street bearing Wheldon’s named and scaled to the top to touch the sign and bow his head in remembrance.  It was truly a tearful moment for all.

Chevrolet powered cars fared better than Honda with Louts still behind after joining the series very late allowing for a solid head start for hits rivals.   Formula One standout, Rubens Barrichello finished 17th in his first ever IRL start but was impressed.  “Had I not run out off fuel at the end, I would have finished higher,” said Barrichello, “however, I enjoyed the race and dicing with the other cars, it was somewhat different that what I have been accustomed to.”

The series moved on to Barber Motorsports on Sunday and it was Castroneves continuing his torrid pace by capturing the pole for the race but it was his other teammate, Will Power, who would emerge from his final pit stop in the lead and just as last week it was Dixon who was in pursuit of the Penske car finished second, 3.3709 seconds behind Power, who won for the second straight year at Barber.  Dixon, who lead a race high 38 laps, felt he had the car to beat with got stuck behind a slower car that allowed the 3 second separation at the end following their final pit stops.

If anything, the first two races were entertaining with on track action and passing and that it what the series so desperately needed.  The new cars are different to look at and it will take some time to get used to them but they are certainly different and a new look can’t hurt.

26 full time cars are committed to the series and all were present for the first two races, albeit, some were very thin as to spare chassis parts but that will correct it as the weeks elapse and suppliers catch up.

It was clear that Lotus was behind Oriol Servia finishing 16th at S. Petersburg and 13th at Barber two lead the five Lotus cars that in the field thus far.  

James Hinchcliffe, who has the tough assignment of not only replacing Wheldon in the car he was to drive in 2012 but his car was also the ride vacated by Danica Patrick when she moved to NASCAR, did an admirable job of placing 4th in Florida and 6th in Alabama as his team, Andretti Autosports showed that their Chevrolet program was also very capable.

Other noteworthy drives were rookie Josef Newgarden for Sarah Fisher Hartman racing taking 11th and then 17th whole Ed Carpenter making his debut as an owner driver finished 18th and 22nd.  Barrichello was 8th in Alabama quickly adapting to his new car and team and should be challenging for the lead in a few more races.

It has not been a seller start for defending series champion Dario Franchitti who, despite being in a Ganassi Honda finished 13th in Florida and 10th in Alabama.  He got off on the wrong foot with the new Dallara Chassis and has not felt comfortable in the new car to date.

The series now moves to California for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15th with Castroneves leading Dixon by two points and Power in third 9 behind the leader.

All eyes will turn to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tomorrow, April 4th for the first test of the new speedway or oval track “aero” package on the Dallara.

When Wheldon tested the new car at Indy last summer the speeds were not “their” in his own words and that send ripples through the Indy community as to the speedway or oval track performance of the car.  Well that was then, and this is now and the new body work sets the oval configuration apart from the street, road and temporary course design and that was done so as to improve stability while increasing speed and that is what everyone is hoping to see tomorrow.

One car from each organization was invited to participate:  Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, J.R. Hildebrand and Castroneves will represent the Chevrolet teams while Dixon, Takumo Sato, Mike Conway and Justin Wilson will carry the Honda banner.  Lotus choose to pass this test up because they are still behind in the available engine department but do hope to be up to strength with team with car number 6 by the Indy 500.

Speaking of the 500 concerns still exists as to having the customary 33 cars in the starting field this year.   

Indy Car’s CEO, Randy Bernard hopes to have the field fill and then some.  “Honda and Chevrolet can supply engines for up to 14 cars for the Indianapolis 500, said Bernard, who is also counting on Louts to add that 6th car.

Dallara has already said that chassis and spare parts will not be a problem for the 500 and the entire season as their new facility in Speedway, Indiana, is up and running and working hard to fulfill all orders.

So the size of the 500 field rests on what the engine manufacturers’ can or can not do.  The 26 series “regulars” are a shoe in for 500 entries.  Many of those teams have plans for an extra car for the 500mand all that depends on sponsorship as well as engine availability.

April 15th is fast approaching when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway publishes the 500 entry list and I am waiting.  In the meantime deals are being made all over the Indy Car landscape as each day passes.  There are certainly more talented drivers available than equipment right now and that should make for an exciting 500 despite having a new car and new engines.

The speeds tomorrow will be the first barometer, the rest will follow soon.

Stay Tuned!