It's been an age since that late-night finish to last year's IZOD IndyCar Series campaign and that thrilling against-the-odds title victory for Ryan Hunter-Reay at Auto Club Speedway, Fontana. This weekend it was NASCAR's turn to play at that California venue, while IndyCar was on the East Coast for its traditional season opener on the streets of St Petersburg in Florida.
Things were looking good for Power, who had won his fourth consecutive pole at St Pete in qualifying on Saturday afternoon and looked in unstoppable form heading into the race. By contrast, the reigning champion Hunter-Reay was down in eighth place and the Ganassi duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon - the traditional foes of the Penske squad - were looking down-and-out with under-performing cars and under-powered Honda engines, at least compared to the Chevrolet units favoured by Power and his team mate Helio Castroneves.
Sure enough, Power shot off as soon as honorary starter Susie Wheldon showed the field the green flag to get the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg underway. Power was soon disappearing off down the road pulling, out a lead of more than half a second per lap, albeit not without a few lairy close-call moments in the process to show just how hard the Aussie was pushing. Behind him, Takuma Sato was able to hold on the second place he'd won in qualifying - AJ Foyt Racing's first front row start in over a decade - but the less experienced Simona de Silvestro was understandably caught out in the melee into turn 1 and the KV Racing Technology car immediately dropped positions to Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe into turn 1.
Dario Franchitti struggled from the start, progressively conceding places to the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastian Saavedra and Graham Rahal. Finally on lap 18 Dario pitted to see if a change of tyres would help, but on his first lap out of pit road on the colder, harder compound tyres he drifted wide through the exit of turn 8 into turn 9 and then skated over the marbles into a hard hit against the wall. That happened right in front of his Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon, who was lucky to avoid getting caught up in his team mate's wreck. All in all it capped a nightmarish weekend start to the season for the Scot, and brought out the first caution of the race.
"We've really struggled with the Target car this weekend," explained Franchitti. "I was trying to make up for it somewhere on the track and I just stepped over the line there on cold tyres.
"I hit a bump in Turn 3, and with the ride height being so low with the tires pressures I just got in the marbles and in the wall," he added, admitting: "It was totally my mistake."
There was a mad scramble for the pits by anyone yet to take their first stop of the day, with Castroneves getting the jump on Sato out of pit road and duly lining up alongside Power for the restart. There were no pulled punches between team mates at the green flag and Castroneves accomplished a sweeping move around the outside to take the lead from Power, while behind them Sato was demoted another spot this time thanks to a nice pass from Hinchcliffe.
The green didn't last long, however: the field bunched up behind them and Charlie Kimball was pitched into a spin that left him blocking the track, catching out Ana Beatriz, JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter and Oriol Servià. The track officials moved into action and cleared the course in double quick time without need of a yellow, with everyone getting back underway even though Servià required an emergency stop for a new front wing for his Dallara DW12 that dropped him to the back of the field. But the track still went yellow again anyway, thanks to Hildebrand - his front wing already wrecked in the earlier incident when he'd run into the back of James Jakes' Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car - now getting tipped into the tyre barrier by Sebastian Saavedra. This one did need a full retrieval team, forcing the return to the full course caution.
It was a mainly single-file affair at the front for the restart on lap 32, with Power stalking his team mate into turn 1 evidently planning on pulling off a pass to get his lead back. It didn't happen, and Power had to check up to avoid losing his nose on the back of Castroneves' #3 through the corner - which allowed Hinchcliffe to steal second from him. Behind the battle for the lead Sato suffered another lost position, the Japanese this time unable to resist a classy pass from de Silvestro who looked to be building in confidence with every passing lap.
Sato by contrast appeared to be increasingly struggling, and was rapidly further demoted to sixth place by series rookie Tristan Vautier. The rest of the top ten was comprised of Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was running six tenths ahead of Dixon when a new caution came out for debris - apparently off the wing of Bourdais' Dragon Racing #7 - at turn 14 on lap 45, giving the drivers the opportunity for another call to pit road under yellow.
The off-sync Servià stayed out to lead at the restart, with Castroneves in second, and Power having got back around Hinchcliffe in pit road for third place. Sato was the big loser, dropping out of the top ten as the AJ Foyt Racing team tried to retrieve the pace the car had shown throughout practice and qualifying. Josef Newgarden was also flat out of luck, rolling to a stop with a clutch problem before the race could restart which meant that he would join Franchitti on the sidelines for the rest of the race, along with Simon Pagenaud who had retired in the pits on lap 26 with engine and exhaust issues. Ana Beatriz was in minutes later with mechanical problems of her own.
Finally on lap 55 after an interminable ten-lap caution the race was back on: despite his older tyres Servià held onto the lead ahead of Castroneves while Hinchcliffe once again again got the jump on Power for third; further back, Dixon held off a spirited challenge by Justin Wilson for tenth place but Takuma Sato's declining fortunes took another hit as he lost 12th place to Ryan Hunter-Reay. Charlie Kimball was the recipient of some front wing damage in the restart crush and was forced to make a quick detour to pit lane for a replacement.
Sadly Servia's dream run in the lead came to an end on lap 62 when he pitted and disaster struck, the #22 unable to find a gear to launch the car from the pit stall. Minutes later, there were problems for another yellow-hued car when Ryan Hunter-Reay got rear-ended by Graham Rahal, but he had a more serious issue with a stuck throttle that put him multiple laps down while on pit road for repairs.
"It wasn't a great day," sighed Hunter-Reay. "We couldn't get our car into first gear on a pit stop for whatever reason. I don't know if that had anything to do with the stuck throttle that we ended up having, but that's what sidelined us in the end.
"I've heard some other guys have been having that issue so everyone is scratching their head right now," he added. "Trust me, on a street course it's not the thing you want - it's pretty scary to have one."
At the front, Castroneves was back in charge ahead of Hinchcliffe and Power, with Tristan Vautier an impressive fourth place in his IndyCar Series début ahead of KV Racing Technology team mates Simona de Silvestro and Tony Kanaan. Unfortunately, the rookie Frenchman was the next to be hit by technical gremlins - the same exhaust issues that had afflicted his team mate and compatriot Pagenaud - on lap 69, pitching him into retirement.
After damaging his front wing on an earlier run-off and losing downforce, Sebastian Saavedra managed to stuff his #6 Dragon into the tyre wall at turn 10 with 37 laps remaining. That allowed the field to come in for what everyone hoped would be their final refuelling stop of the day: most cars held position with the exception of Tony Kanaan who was the big loser as the team struggled to get the #11 into neutral, dropping three places to eighth with Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti and Justin Wilson all gaining a spot as a result.
Before the race could get underway again, there was another accident as the cars bunched up behind the safety car. That apparently caught out a distracted JR Hildebrand, who missed his braking point and ran over the right rear of the car in front - which just happened to be the Penske #12 of Will Power.
"It was totally my fault and I feel super sorry for Will and Team Penske," said a chastened Hildebrand. "I was just getting ready for the restart and talking to the team while dialing my knobs back and the field checked up in front of me."
"He came over and apologized after the race," Power said later. "He said he was just looking down at his steering wheel and he just ran over the top of me. It's just a mistake but that happens in racing."
Hildebrand's day was done, but Power had escaped the heavy contact remarkably well, with the exception of a right rear puncture caused by the impact and a crushed wheel guard which the team ripped away as they fitted new Firestone tyres. It did however drop Power back to 16th place, the last position on the lead lap, and he had to start working his way forward again in the remaining laps of the race.
Castroneves appeared to have the race under control as the green flag came out for the restart on lap 85 with 25 to go, but as he sped down into turn 1 he suddenly found that he'd slightly overcooked it and ran wide. That gave Hinchcliffe the chance he needed to slip through on the inside line.
"As long as I was in front of him, it was going to be fine. Maybe I didn't warm up my tyres enough," said Castroneves after the race. "Just a small mistake. I guess the old dogs still make mistakes. Still have a lot to learn!"
Now there was nothing Castroneves could do but clamp himself to the back of the GoDaddy.com #27, bide his time and hope that some opportunity presented itself in the closing laps of the race. Lap after lap, Castroneves looked out for any weakness from the young Canadian, but found none forthcoming.
"Hinch was really good - especially in the Mickey Mouse section, as I call it. He was very strong there," said the Penske driver.
Behind them, de Silvestro was holding onto third place by the skin of her teeth, but was being warned by her team to save fuel at the same time that she was suffering from high rear tyre pressures that compromised her rear wheel grip and made the car a handful to control. Behind her was her KV Racing team mate Tony Kanaan who gallantly held position rather than press the issue with her, but then came a pack of half a dozen cars all determined to break through and steal that podium position away. Finally Marco Andretti managed to do just that, sliding past Kanaan and then laying siege to de Silvestro, bumping the rear of the #78 until finally she ran wide into the first turn of the final lap which allowed him to wrest third place away from her. Kanaan was left with little option but to go with him, leaving de Silvestro in a three-wide battle for fifth across the finish line with Scott Dixon and EJ Viso. Dixon won that one, a remarkable comeback from a horrible weekend for Ganassi to become the highest placed Honda finisher; de Silvestro edged sixth ahead of Viso, and just six hundredths of a second covered all three cars.
"Unfortunately we lost a few positions at the end there," said de Silvestro afterwards. "We kind of ran out of tyres at the end [but] I think we can be pretty happy with sixth.
"It was really cool to be up front all day with Will, Hinch and everybody," she continued. "It was awesome. I think we can learn a lot from this weekend to have a better result at the next race ... I'm really excited to get to Barber and see what we can do there."
Takuma Sato had managed to revive himself in the closing laps and put in his usual bruising performance to push his way past Justin Wilson for eighth place, with Alex Tagliani managing a tenth place that had seemed likely for the Bryan Herta Autosport team through much of the weekend that had seen them struggle through practice and qualifying.
For a time it looked like Will Power might fight his way back into the top ten after that bizarre accident with Hildebrand during the last safety car period, but finally the wounded Penske #12 lost the backend into a right-hander and Power's efforts to save the car ended up thumping the already-fragile right hand rear of the car into the tyre barrier, meaning that Power dropped back to 16th in the final standings.
"I made another mistake there at the end and it cost us four more places," sighed Power. "Tough day but we just have to move forward and look ahead to Barber." Not the way he wanted to start his season, even if there were some small crumbs of comfort in his finishing two spots ahead of Hunter-Reay who finally retired in the pits from his mechanical issues.
With so many of the series' big names ending up out of the running thanks to accidents, incidents and glitches, it left a vacancy at the head of the class: and the self-proclaimed Major of Hinchtown was just the man to apply successfully for the vacancy.
The 26-year-old from Oakville, Ontario had stepped into some big shoes to fill in 2012 after taking over the GoDaddy.com mantle from Danica Patrick, a seat that at one point had been ear-marked for Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon to take before his untimely death at Las Vegas at the end of 2011. Perhaps it was fate, then, that it was Hinchcliffe who claimed his maiden win in the series in Wheldon's adopted US home town, at a race started by Wheldon's widow Susie. Last year it had been the veteran Helio Castroneves who had won, and memorably scaled the catchfence to point out the road sign for Dan Wheldon Way to pay his respects; this year, Hinchcliffe's victory felt like a re-energising changing of the guard and the passing of the torch to a new generation of drivers in the sport.
"I just can't be happier. It is so awesome: Dan's home town, Dan's car - this one's for him," acknowledged Hinchcliffe in victory circle. "The people in this town are incredible. I'm glad we can open up our season here.
"That was a tough race," he said, despite having made his maiden IndyCar victory look as easy as if he'd been winning for years. Last year we qualified fourth, finished fourth. Qualified fourth again and I thought that was kind of our cursed number there for a bit," he laughed.
"The big thing was minimizing mistakes. We had a good car. Not sure if we had the fastest car over a lap but I'll tell you what, we nailed the pit stops," he said. "That last restart, man, Helio Castroneves there - he's a three-time winner at this race. He's on the reds [soft option tyres], he makes a mistake. I get by, but I'm thinking, 'He has 30 laps to get this back,' and we were saving a bit of fuel, trying to save the tyres."
He had balanced all the competing priorities with aplomb and kept the car going all the way to the finish, never giving Castroneves the slightly sliver of a chance. In Hinchcliffe, it really seems as though IndyCar is in safe hands going into 2013.Full race results available