Wheldon triumphs as AGR makes history

Updated: April 3, 2005, 10:19 PM ET
Associated Press

Dan Wheldon
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Dan Wheldon thanked teammate Tony Kanaan for handing him a victory Sunday in the first street race in the history of the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.

"TK was awesome,'' Wheldon said. "He was just a little unlucky and I got the benefit of it.''

Wheldon led an Andretti Green Racing sweep of the top four places in the Honda Grand Prix. But it took an aggressive move by defending series champion Kanaan just nine laps from the end to make the 1-2-3-4 finish possible.

Rookie Ryan Briscoe, a 23-year-old Australian driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, was out front and seemingly on the way to his first IndyCar Series victory before a pair of late caution flags on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary road circuit in downtown St. Petersburg.

Kanaan took advantage of a restart on the 84th of 100 laps to move from fourth to second, bumping past Briscoe's teammate Darren Manning and then zooming past Wheldon to the runner-up spot.

Two-time series champ Sam Hornish Jr., who started the day leading the points standings, and rookie Tomas Enge then collided on the 87th lap, bringing out the fifth and final caution flag of the race and putting Kanaan right behind Briscoe for the final restart on lap 92.

As the green flag waved, Kanaan began harassing the young leader, feinting first to the outside, then the inside and finally moving to the inside of Briscoe as they went into turn 10. The rookie turned into Kanaan, then careered into a tire wall.

Amazingly, neither the contact with Manning nor the collision with Briscoe damaged Kanaan's Honda-powered Dallara. But the bump with Briscoe did slow him enough to allow Wheldon to shoot past into the lead. The 26-year-old Englishman then held off his teammate, pulling away to a 1.45-second victory.

He and Kanaan were followed across the line by Dario Franchitti and pole winner Bryan Herta.

"I think Briscoe was a little silly to turn into him like that,'' said Wheldon, who celebrated the victory by doing burnouts at several places around the circuit, then shared a hug with his three teammates.

"I honestly had an inkling of what was going to happen, especially after what happened with Manning,'' Wheldons added. "It slowed TK enough and I was able to sneak by on the inside.''

With some braking problems that had cropped up, Wheldon still was not home free.

"It was difficult as it is any time you have TK breathing down your neck,'' he said. "I was a little concerned about my brakes, but they seemed to hold up and they need to when you have Tony behind you.

"You know he's going to try to do anything he can. But, fortunately, I kept him at bay.''

Kanaan, who has now completed every lap of every race since the start of the 2004 season, was penalized all the way to 17th in the 21-car field early in the race for running over an air hose during a pit stop.

After coming so close to winning, he was angry with Briscoe for stopping his charge.

"In fairness, when people are not fair, they get what they deserve,'' the Brazilian driver said. "He tried to put me in the wall three turns before that. You want to play hard, we'll play hard.

"Dan was one lucky guy. But, to win in racing, you've got to be lucky.''

The rookie denied he tried to put Kanaan in the wall, saying he was simply trying to hold his line through the turns.

"Coming off turn nine and going into the kink, I honestly made sure to brake late, but I took a look and Kanaan wasn't there,'' Briscoe said. "I was very surprised by the move because that was a risky passing zone and he simply threw his car into the turn. You can see the result.

"I was the leader and we were fighting for the win. I was up for the challenge and I held my line, so I guess we'll call this a racing incident.''

Briscoe, a former Formula One test driver who has now crashed out of each of his first three IndyCar starts, led a race-high 43 laps but wound up 14th in the 21-car field.

Franchitti, who also had an on-track run-in, colliding earlier in the race with Scott Sharp, said the amazing thing was the amount of passing that went on during the race on the tight, twisting street circuit.

"I think Tony and I must have both passed 30 or 40 cars out there today,'' Franchitti said.

The sweep of the top four spots for the team co-owned by former racing star Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree made it a perfect day for AGR, which also got a victory from 18-year-old Marco Andretti -- Michael's son -- earlier Sunday in his Infiniti Pro Series debut.

A division of the team also promoted the first non-oval race in IRL history, which appeared to be a huge success, drawing an enthusiastic crowd estimated at more than 30,000 on a sparkling, cool Florida day.

"The key was that drive by Tony Kanaan,'' Michael Andretti said. "He's the one who made it possible for us to get the sweep. I don't remember a day in my life when I've been happier.''

Wheldon, who took over the series lead by 24 points over Kanaan and 29 over Hornish, earned his second victory in three starts this season and the fifth of his IRL career.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press