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Franchitti wins IndyCar's opener

Franchitti wins IndyCar's opener

March 28th, 2011 in News

Marco Andretti (26) and Mike Conway crash in the first turn of the opening lap of Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Photo by The Associated Press /News Tribune.

Dario Franchitti is still the one to beat in IndyCar.

The two-time defending series champion was perfect in Sunday's season opener, leading 94 of 100 laps on the scenic, 1.8-mile street course and beating Will Power to the finish line by more than seven seconds. It was Franchitti's first victory and fifth top-five finish in six starts in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"He's like clockwork," Power said. "He never makes mistakes."

Franchitti didn't make any Sunday, and there were plenty of opportunities for them. Just ask Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick or Marco Andretti.

Franchitti grabbed the lead early on and was hardly challenged the rest of the way.

"Sunday has a bit of motivation for this year and maybe that answers the question of how badly I still want to win races and championships and all that stuff," Franchitti said. "When you have a day like today, with the way the team was just like clockwork - pit stops, the car was great and didn't make any mistakes - they are few and far between so you have to enjoy them when they happen."

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion who joined his new team last Monday, held off Simona de Silvestro over the final few laps for third. De Silvestro enjoyed her best finish in 18 career starts.

Patrick was 12th, a disappointing start to her seventh IndyCar season. Patrick, who drove four races in NASCAR's second-tier series before resuming her full-time Indy-Car gig, was penalized one spot on the final lap for making "avoidable contact" with JR Hildebrand.

Patrick bumped Hildebrand from behind, turning him around. That was nothing compared to the early chaos. There were four full-course cautions in the first 14 laps.

A few hours after teammates Sebastien Bourdais and James Jakes crashed during a warmup session, five cars - all of them from the sport's top three teams - found trouble in the first turn.

Penske teammates Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were involved, as were two-time series champion Dixon and Andretti Autosport teammates Mike Conway and Marco Andretti.

Andretti drove into Dixon from behind, running over his rear wheel and sending Andretti for a wild ride. He flipped and landed upside down. Andretti escaped without injury, walked toward his pit, paused to watch a huge replay board, then cited threetime Indy 500 champion Castroneves for the melee.

"Helio just drove it in on all of us," Andretti said. "He missed his braking point by a decent chunk. It's unfortunate."

Castroneves accepted blame, saying he locked up his brakes.

"I feel terrible for the team, but you've got to move on," Castroneves said.

The race was flagged several more times on restarts, all of them coming under the sport's new rules. In previous years, the series used singlefile restarts. But this season, IndyCar switched to doublefile restarts similar to those in NASCAR.

Drivers thought those dicey situations would be attractive to fans and figured they also would cause attrition. They were right on both accounts. Fans cheered the first-turn frenzy and several cars sustained damage on restarts.

Andretti questioned the decision.

"That's what happens when you try to imitate NASCAR," he said. "Our cars have too much power to start right nose-totail, you know. It creates disasters. It's good for the fans; it's not good for me today."

Franchitti said team owners wanted the double-file restarts as much as anyone.

"I like the fact that the guys in the series are trying stuff," he said. "They are modifying the show and some things are going to work and some things aren't. ... And that's conversations I'm sure they are having right now because nobody wants to see half the field taken out in some of these accidents.

"There's probably a few (owners) sitting there scratching their heads just now looking at bills for loads and loads of carbon fiber and going, "Why didn't I ever think of that?'"

Power echoed concerns of other drivers.

"It was a start, a NASCARstyle, and we are not NASCAR," Power said. "That was the problem. We can't hit each other. We can't bump each other."

Although most of the wrecks happened on restarts, there were other issues.

Patrick drove into the rear of Justin Wilson on lap 44 and broke her nose wing. Her team fixed it, but she wasn't able to make up ground on the leaders.

Franchitti, meanwhile, was simply pulling away from his closest competitors.

Franchitti edged Power for the championship in last year's season finale and opened 2011 with another strong showing for Chip Ganassi Racing. He took the lead on the fifth lap, was dominant from there and seemingly could have slowed down over the final few laps to take in sights on the waterfront drive.

"A lot hinged on that first or second restart, passing Will there," Franchitti said. "I forced the issue fairly aggressive there. Yeah, I was going for it, and you know, that's what we are going to have to do."