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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Helio Castroneves stopped his first victory lap in more than a year when he made it to Dan Wheldon Way.
He climbed from his car and climbed the fence, same as he does after every win.
Then Castroneves darted across the street and patted the sign that was erected in Turn 10 earlier this month as a tribute to the fallen IndyCar star. He then emotionally doubled over against the wall and seemed to be wiping tears away inside his helmet.
“No question about it, this is for our friend upstairs, Dan Wheldon,” Castroneves said. “I used to stop in Turn 1 and celebrate, and this time I said I’m going to do something else in a different corner. I saw Turn 10, I didn’t plan. As soon as I kind of celebrate, I look and I saw Dan’s sign. It’s amazing. It was a perfect fit for this race, a perfect way to start the season.”
“I felt very touched by seeing his name there. What happened last year, we still hurt, but we’ve got to keep moving on.”
The IndyCar Series finally returned to racing on Sunday, its first event since Wheldon was killed in last October’s season finale. The opener was through the streets of St. Petersburg, the Englishman’s adopted hometown, where his wife and two sons still live and where Wheldon won the inaugural 2005 race.
The prerace ceremony included a tribute video of Wheldon, and his younger sister, Holly, dropped the green flag.
“I think it is still so fresh, and I think in some ways it’s almost fitting the first race was in St. Pete,” runner-up Scott Dixon said. “For me, personally, I just miss the guy.”
The race itself was somewhat anticlimactic, with Castroneves’ bold pass of Dixon 27 laps from the finish one of the few memorable moments on track. But a nice, clean, race was probably just what IndyCar needed after the horrific 15-car accident that killed Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
With a five-month layoff after the accident, Wheldon’s death haunted the series and halted any sense of normalcy for the drivers.
So even after finally getting a race in the record books, Wheldon was still on everyone’s mind.
“Most of all we are missing Dan,” said third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay. “That wound is still fresh and this race would have been better with him in it, that’s for sure.
“We love the Wheldon family. This is their city.”
That’s been the theme this entire weekend, and it overshadowed everything IndyCar brought into this new season.
IndyCar welcomed multiple engine manufacturers Sunday with Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda, and the introduction of the first new car since 2003. Because he was without a full-time ride last season, Wheldon was the development driver for the new car, and Dallara named it the DW12 after his death.
It was designed to upgrade both technology and safety measures, and Castroneves believed it might have made a difference in the season finale.
“This car we had today, unfortunately, it came just a little too late,” he said. “If we did have this car in the last race of the season, I believe Dan would be here.”
The new car wasn’t put through much of a safety test on Sunday; Castroneves’ spin of Ed Carpenter, and James Jakes running into the tire barrier in Turn 10 were the only two caution-causing incidents.
Pole-sitter Will Power was done in by strategy that backfired — the Penske team brought him into the pits during an early caution, and the loss of track position took him out of contention. He spent most of the race mired in traffic and was grateful to leave with a seventh-place finish.
“That was the worst race of my life,” he said. “I had the best car I’ve ever had, it was so fast, and we just got shuffled back there after that first pit stop.”
Dario Franchitti, the defending series champion and race winner, was 13th.