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Wheldon kicks off season with victory.

After finishing second in the standings in 2004, Brit Dan Wheldon made the perfect start to his Indy Racing League title challenge with victory in the season opening Toyota Indy 300.

Wheldon, who won three times last season, cliched a commanding victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a race dominated by a pile-up which saw seven drivers eliminated. Behind the victorious Andretti Green Racing man, Sam Hornish Jr came out top in a four car battle for second place, passing reigning champion Tony Kanaan on the last lap with Vitor Meira and Helio Catroneves close behind after a 24 lap dash to the flag following the seventh, and final, caution period of the race.

That caution period came as a result of a major accident which saw almost half the field forced out of the race. Heading into turn one after a restart, Kosuke Matsuura in the Super Aguri Fernandez Panoz-Honda got out of shape while trying to go round the outside of pole-sitter Tomas Scheckter. As Matsuura span across the track, Scheckter found himself in the wall, while Scott Sharp, Bryan Herta, Danica Patrick, Scott Dixon and Roger Yasukawa were also forced into early retirement when they became involved in the accident - Patrick requiring treatment for concussion afterwards.

Until that point, the race had passed without major incident. Starting from pole position, Scheckter led the early stages, although he had been beaten at the start by Meira, but one of the title favourites saw his challenge come to a premature halt as Dario Franchitti retired with engine problems just twelve laps in. Tomas Enge also saw engine problems bring his race to a premature halt during the opening quarter, a quarter in which the leading protagonists had battled to the front.

By lap 50, double Indy 500 winner Castroneves had established himself at the front, but behind Wheldon has battled through from his middle of the grid starting position to run in second ahead of Hornish, Kanaan and Schecker, who was following up his impressive qualifying performance by staying with the leaders.

Soon the lead had changed hands, as Wheldon hit the front, but within a matter of laps, the yellow flags were out when debutant Ryan Briscoe put his Ganassi Racing Panoz into the wall in turn four. Although Castroneves emerged in front from the safety period, it wasn't to last as Wheldon moved back into the lead and set about building a lead - putting a second between hiself and the chasing pack within a matter of laps.

Maintaing his lead, Wheldon looked comfortable out front while behind the battle raged for second place but again the yellow flag would see the Brit lose his hard earned advantage, this time when Buddy Race saw his Honda engine expire on lap 92.

As the race went green, Wheldon immediately went on the offensive and broke clear of the pack, his lead up as high as two seconds at one point before the sixth caution of the race again bunched up the field, and it was as the race went green that Matsuura and co became involved in the big incident of the day.

With the yellow again out to allow the debris to be cleared, the field pitted, with Wheldon emerging in front from Hornish, Castroneves, Kanaan and IRL debutant Patrick Carpentier. On the restart the top four broke away, while Meira made his move into the top five.

When Kanaan passed both Hornish and Castroneves to go second with barely 15 laps remaining, Wheldon took his chance to secure a lead he was not to lose as he powered to the opening win of the new season, but Kanaan was unable to make it a one-two for the AGR team as he was passed on the final lap by a determined Hornish. Meira surprised Castroneves to take fourth, while Darren Manning made a solid start to his season with sixth.

Former Champ Car ace Carpentier secured seventh, ahead of team-mate Alex Barron, with AJ Foyt and Paul Dana completing the ten finishers.


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