ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – James Hinchcliffe watched the 2011 season-opening race at St. Petersburg from the sidelines because he didnt have a deal yet to drive in the IndyCar Series. Out of work again at the end of the year when his race team closed its doors, the Canadian was pondering his future in the Indianapolis house he shared with a bunch of roommates when his big break finally came.
Michael Andretti was on the phone in need of a driver to fill Danica Patricks seat. The ride had gone to Dan Wheldon, who signed to drive the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport but was killed shortly after in the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas.
Hinchcliffe was both honored and humbled – feelings that came flooding back Sunday when it all came full circle for him as he picked up his first career victory on the street course in Wheldons adopted hometown of St. Pete.
This is his hometown; this is his car, said Hinchcliffe, who will be added now to the Wheldon monument unveiled Thursday at Turn 10 on the course. Knowing my face will be on that memorial, thats really special.
He drove the bright green No. 27 to the win in front of Wheldons wife, two sons, and sister, who have become like family to him and gave him the blessing to accept the job when Andretti called.
It was a tremendous amount of responsibility I felt to honor Dan and do a good enough job to honor what he would have done in this car, Hinchcliffe said. So to get the first win here in his hometown with his family here, who Ive grown quite close to, it means so much more, to be honest. Theres nowhere that I would have rather had my first win I dont think in this car than right here in St. Pete.
Hinchcliffe passed Helio Castroneves on the final restart to take the lead and held on to win by 1.09 seconds over the defending race winner. The team also celebrated Marco Andrettis third-place finish and was satisfied with E.J. Visos seventh-place finish considering he came back from a crash in Saturdays practice after his suspension failed.
We worked so hard over the winter because we knew it was going to be that much harder to be competitive this year, Michael Andretti said. To come out the way we did, I think all weekend all of our cars were showing they had strength.
Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro, driving for KV Racing Technology, finished fourth and sixth. Scott Dixon, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, was fifth.