Penske and Power pass early test
The Izod IndyCar Series' 2010 opener featured a little bit of everything, including a spectacular first-lap accident, a midrace rain break, multiple on-track passes for the lead and a pair of compelling comeback stories.
But for all that was new and different about IndyCar's Brazilian debut, the end result was pretty much the same old story as Team Penske took home the trophy. Will Power, in his first race since he suffered a broken back in an accident at Infineon Raceway, won Sunday's inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300. Clearly the 29-year old Australian hasn't lost any of his speed and savvy.
Power had a fraught day from start to finish; the Penske team battled a balky gearbox during the morning qualifying session, and by the end of the 61-lap race, Power's hands were battered, blistered and bruised, the product of the severe bumps that were a hallmark of the 2.6-mile street course in downtown Sao Paulo.
But his surgically repaired back held up just fine, thank you. And when a late full-course yellow allowed Power to switch from fuel saving to attack mode, he was physically and mentally ready. He made a clean pass on Ryan Hunter-Reay at the end of the mile-long back straight with just four laps remaining in what turned out to be a timed race (reduced from a scheduled 75-lap distance) and pulled away to claim his second career IndyCar Series victory by 1.4-seconds over the American.
"Before that last yellow I had a fuel number to get," Power told viewers on the television broadcast. "After the yellow, it was just 'go for it.'
"A great day for the Verizon Team Penske car," he added. "I'm really happy for all the guys. We had a gearbox problem and just got out for qualifying. It was just a day where everything was thrown at you."
The race started with a bang when rookie Takuma Sato triggered a first-corner accident that swept in several top contenders, including Power's Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe and two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, all of whom were able to continue. Behind the initial accident, Mario Moraes missed his braking point and launched his car onto the top of Marco Andretti's car, leaving Andretti uninjured but trapped in the cockpit for several minutes.
Once racing finally resumed, pole-winner Dario Franchitti led most of the first half of the race until the rain started, and Hunter-Reay shot past just before the contest was red-flagged due to standing water. But the track dried just as quickly as it flooded, and following a 36-minute delay, Hunter-Reay pitted for dry tires almost immediately after the restart.
By contrast, Franchitti stayed out in the lead for several laps on rain tires, and when he finally pitted for slicks, he dropped to 11th place. He rebounded to finish seventh, one spot behind teammate Dixon.
"If I had my crystal ball it would have been easier," the defending IndyCar Series champion Franchitti said in a team release. "We get it right quite often here at Team Target, but we had a lot of unknowns with the weather. We played it as best we could, so I can't be too disappointed."
Meanwhile, the Penske cars of Briscoe and Power closed in on Hunter-Reay when the Andretti Autosport driver was advised to save fuel. Briscoe got past, but he was clearly driving very hard to do so, locking up brakes and missing apexes.
Briscoe's reputation is of being prone to mistakes, and that was the Australian's undoing Sunday. Hunter-Reay didn't back off after he was passed for the lead, and in fact he began to pile the pressure on Briscoe. Sure enough, a rattled Briscoe nosed his Team Penske machine into a tire wall after just four laps in the lead and dropped to a 14th-place finish.
That left Hunter-Reay leading Power, but the Penske driver was too strong for Hunter-Reay to hold off, and Power scored an emotional victory on his return to racing.
"I feel great," he said. "It's been tough with my recovery from the back [injury]. I'm just very grateful to be given this opportunity. I didn't know what was going to happen. You think, 'Will I be fast again?' and all the other things that go through your head. I'm appreciative of Verizon coming on board and giving me a full year."Power showed his banged-up hands to the television cameras and said, "They're nasty and, man, I'm hurting. On the radio under yellow I was saying, 'My hands are so bad.' But when we had that yellow and I saw the opportunity that the win was there to be had, I went for it."
Hunter-Reay finished second in the IndyCar opener for the second year in a row. Although his situation is far more settled than it was a year ago (when he started the season for Vision Racing and switched midseason to A.J. Foyt Racing), Hunter-Reay has still only been confirmed for six races this year with Andretti Autosport.
"That was so much fun -- clean racing all day," exclaimed Hunter-Reay on a radio broadcast. "It's really disappointing finishing second, and it's one of those days where it's almost better to finish third. But I'm having a blast and I'm just happy to get Andretti Autosport up here."
Finishing a popular third was Vitor Meira, who also personified a tale of redemption Sunday. Meira lost even more of his 2009 season to injury (a broken back suffered in May during the Indianapolis 500), and his comeback drive to third place was even more memorable and significant to himself and A.J. Foyt Racing.
"I think Will can relate to having a back injury and all that," Meira told reporters afterward. "It gets pretty uncertain at some times, and having a team behind you making sure that the seat is available, that makes a big difference during the recovery.
"I just kept my nose clean and things were going our way," he said in a radio interview. "I'm not going to say that we were the third quickest car, but with all the adverse conditions, we were overall very good. To have a team wait for you for almost a year and to come back in a big way, here at home, it doesn't get much better than that and I'm very pleased."
Local favorite Ana Beatriz, making her first IndyCar Series start, was the top finisher among the four female drivers in the race in 13th place. Danica Patrick was delayed by a spin in the rain and finished 15th.
Rookie Simona De Silvestro led four laps in her IndyCar debut thanks to an alternate pit stop sequence, but ultimately finished 16th.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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