After years of contending for wins and championships, Helio Castroneves finally appeared to have run out of gas in 2011. He fell to 11th in the IZOD IndyCar Series standings, created controversy during the year on and off-track, and failed to win a race for the first time since 1999 -- the year before he joined Team Penske.
Consider all of that officially in the past. With three Indianapolis 500 wins and 26 career victories, Castroneves has made plenty of history in his career, and on Sunday, he made even more as he became the first three-time winner of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
An atmosphere tinged with the usual hopes of a new campaign and solemn reflections of the late Dan Wheldon was the backdrop for Sunday's IZOD IndyCar Series season opener, which played out with enough intrigue to counteract the lack of mayhem that usually comes on tight street courses.
In the end, it was Castroneves who came out on top as he pulled away from Scott Dixon in the closing laps to claim his first triumph since Twin Ring Motegi in 2010 by 5.5 seconds.
"It's been a little while, but it never gets old," said Castroneves. "Certainly, it's good to be back in Victory Circle...It might not be the quickest, but I did say out loud, 'If I start in the top six, I'll win this race.' And we did it, we are here in Victory Circle."
After taking the checkered flag, racing's original Spider-Man then delivered the season's first truly memorable moment. Castroneves motored to the left-hand Turn 10, now known as "Dan Wheldon Way" in honor of St. Petersburg's late racing hero that was killed last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
He proceeded to do his normal fence-climbing celebration on the inside of the turn, but also ran across the track and climbed the outside fence to pat the "Dan Wheldon Way" sign erected there. The gesture for his colleague and friend triggered a hearty roar of approval from the crowd.
"I wanted to just change the corner -- I remember I used to stop in turn one and celebrate [my past wins at St. Pete]," said Castroneves. "This time, I said, 'I'm going to do something else, in a different corner.' I saw Turn 10. I don't know. I didn't plan. As soon as I kind of, like, celebrate, I look and I saw Dan's sign. It's amazing.
"I said it before, I say it now. You can never question God's mystery."
It was a fitting ending to an afternoon filled with reminders of Wheldon. From fans wearing orange ribbons and shirts in his honor to a video tribute in pre-race ceremonies to his sister, Holly, waving the green flag to start the race and also presenting the winner's trophy, it was clear that the man known as 'Lionheart' was still on everyone's minds.
"If you could turn back time and change things, you certainly would," said Dixon, who moved his family to St. Petersburg for a time in the offseason to help look after Wheldon's widow, Susie, and their two young sons. "For me personally, I just miss the guy. It sucks not to be able to turn around and see him coming through a door with those bright, white teeth sort of smiling at you. It's tough to deal with.
"I think it's nice to see Holly here this weekend, have her support for a lot of the guys and teams -- she knows a lot of people. So, yeah, [the situation] just sucks. It just plain sucks."
But while thoughts were prevalent of the two-time '500' champ, teams and drivers managed to get down to the business at hand. Strategy soon played a critical role in the event and it proved to be important for the eventual winner.
While teammates Will Power and Ryan Briscoe decided to pit earlier than normal, Castroneves stretched his first fuel load out to Lap 37, when he joined Dixon on pit road. Castroneves held third behind Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay for much of the second stint before the latter two had to pit again -- RHR on Lap 67, Dixon on Lap 69.
On Lap 70, Castroneves made his stop and with the cycle continuing on, he found himself in third once more behind J.R. Hildebrand (who had yet to pit at that point) and Dixon. Three laps later, the move of the race occurred, with Castroneves going outside on the bumpy, treacherous Turn 1 and managing to pull off a daring pass of Dixon on the exit for second place.
Castroneves sailed off after that and inherited the lead for good when Hildebrand blinked on Lap 75 for tires and fuel. With assurance that he would be okay on fuel, there was nothing left to do but take a Sunday drive of sorts.
"I think it was traffic in the middle, in the mix, and I was able to get a great run on Dixon," said Castroneves of his big pass. "I thought, 'OK, he's not going to make it easy for me.' I remember last year, things didn't go well. He showed me another direction, which is fine.
"I decided to go to the outside, and I braked as deep as I can where everybody brakes. That was awesome, because the car sticks -- I'm like, 'Yes, I made it!'"
"Helio was a man on a mission," said Dixon. "I don't think we had the pace. [I was] probably a little too cautious on Turn One where he did go around the outside. I didn't push the envelope too much. I was trying to envision a finish here. So that's the way it went."
As for Hunter-Reay, he had two problems to contend with en route to a third-place finish: Electrical trouble on his DHL/Sun Drop Chevrolet and saving enough fuel to make it to the finish.
"I had the 'Save fuel, save fuel, save fuel,'" said Hunter-Reay. "I'm putting around in sixth gear under yellow. [The team] said, 'Okay, we need to be in first gear from now on.' Things were revved up completely. It didn't feel good at all. We had to do it to charge the battery.
"It's something they're hopefully going to have changed for the next race."
Still, the American saw the experiences as lessons for the next race -- one week from today at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
"There are many things we need to fix just for next week to get it all right," he surmised. "That's a good thing. That's what we wanted to do. We wanted to learn, finish, head on to Barber."
---Quotes and information from INDYCAR statistics, transcripts and trackside reports were used in the making of this article. Video credit goes to INDYCAR.