- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Driver Mark Donohue often called rain "the great equalizer" in auto racing.
A heavy shower 20 minutes before the start of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg certainly shuffled the deck. It produced a race chock full of incidents and varying strategies, and it ended up with the youngest winner in the history of top-level American open-wheel racing.
Graham Rahal, the youngest son of three-time CART national champion Bobby Rahal, overcame an early spin and a midrace bump by Will Power to claim a truly remarkable victory in his first IndyCar Series start. He held off two-time defending St. Petersburg champion Helio Castroneves by 3.51 seconds, with pole man Tony Kanaan third.
Despite the team's vast experience, no one could have predicted that Champ Car convert Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing would win an IndyCar event in just its second attempt. Rahal missed the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Six of the top 10 finishers were from so-called "transition" teams, including fourth- and fifth-place rookies Ernesto Viso and Enrique Bernoldi. But the story of the day was young Rahal, who at 19 years and 93 days of age, scored an IndyCar win 74 days sooner than the previous record holder, Marco Andretti.
"It was tough after being hit by Will, and with the rain and everything," Rahal remarked after completing 83 laps in a race that started wet, ended dry and featured all sorts of drama. "It doesn't get any sweeter than this to win in your first race."
"He did a good job," said NHLR co-owner Carl Haas. "We're happy to be here. We're a little lucky to win the race, but we love it."
Rahal started eighth, but just like at Champ Car's wet July 2007 race at Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Quebec, he proved to have outstanding pace in the rain. He rose to third place by the 27th tour, but 10 laps later, he was bumped into a spin by Power, dropping to 22nd place.
He remained on track, running until he was forced to pit for fuel and fresh slick tires on Lap 45. From that point, attrition took over.
Ryan Briscoe, one of eight leaders on the day, crashed on Lap 57, leaving the lead to Viso and Bernoldi.
Most of the field pitted under yellow on Lap 60, but Ryan Hunter-Reay (who had last pitted on Lap 41) and Rahal stayed out. It was a dream scenario for Bobby Rahal, with his Rahal Letterman Racing car leading and his son running second.
Hunter-Reay ultimately ran out of fuel on the final lap while running fourth and was classified 17th. The race was scheduled for 100 laps, but running the first 10 laps at slow speed behind the pace car, along with the slower lap times under green in the rain, caused the IRL to invoke a two-hour time limit.
"Graham drove beautifully, and when he had to go fast, he did,"
Bobby Rahal exclaimed. "It's a tremendous moment, and I'm so proud of him. He had problems in the early part and got behind, but his team had great strategy in the end and they gave him a great car. The car was there, and he was there.
"Ryan drove a beautiful race, but we had to gamble," Rahal added.
"The shift-without-lift didn't work, so most of the race he had to manually shift it. He kept his cool and drove hard. We're sorry he ran out of fuel, but we had to roll the dice."
The last of six full-course cautions flew with five minutes remaining, wiping out Graham Rahal's four-second lead over Castroneves.
But he handled the restart like a veteran and easily pulled away from the Brazilian over the final four green-flag laps.
"Obviously, Helio has been very successful and won a lot of races,"
Graham said. "I knew we had the pace and knew if we could keep calm, we could attack and pull away.
"You don't want to lose your focus at the end of the race," he added.
"I just tried to make it through the last set of corners. We had quite a gap, so I wasn't too worried. It worked out well, so this is awesome."
The last driver to win his first IndyCar Series start was Scott Dixon in the 2003 opener at Homestead. Dixon, who is the most successful road racer in the four years the IndyCar Series has run on non-oval tracks, tapped a wall near the end of Sunday's race and finished 22nd.
Castroneves, who fell just short of winning three races in a row at St. Petersburg, paid tribute to Rahal and the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team.
Good job for him -- he did an excellent job. He's following in the footsteps of his father.
-- Helio Castroneves
"Good job for him -- he did an excellent job," chirped the Team Penske ace. "He's following in the footsteps of his father. There are some great guys in the paddock, and this proves they can compete if they execute.
"We tried hard and got close, but not today," Castroneves continued.
"I was going for it, and we tried everything. Second place is good for the championship."
The runner-up finish elevated Castroneves into the IndyCar Series points lead, 10 markers ahead of Dixon and another three up on Kanaan.
The Andretti Green Racing team leader was disappointed after his third consecutive third-place finish at St. Petersburg.
"Obviously, it did not work out," Kanaan said. "Some days you take risks, and some days it works out. I was not happy with the calls today, but I support my team 100 percent. We win together and we lose together.
"I'm still happy to finish third, but I must have a curse at this place," he said. "I finish on podium every year but can't seem to win."
It was an amazing turnabout for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, which seemed to adapt slower than the other transferring Champ Car teams to the new equipment and environment of the IndyCar Series. Justin Wilson qualified on the front row and led 19 laps before an alternate pit stop strategy dropped him to ninth place at the finish.
"Everything was going really well; I was pleased with the handling and feeling pretty confident," Wilson related. "But as it dried out, I don't think we made right choices. That's how it goes some days. We couldn't get the right strategy, and when it cycled through, we seemed to fall to the back.
"I have mixed emotions," he added. "I'm disappointed with my race but delighted for Graham."
As well from producing a second-generation, first-time winner with a pedigreed name, the St. Petersburg race showed that the ex-Champ Car newcomers to the IndyCar Series will be a force on non-oval tracks.
Rain or shine.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Champ Car IndyCar if it has wheels and a gas pedal, 19-year-old Graham Rahal proved Sunday that he can drive it, writes John Oreovicz.