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For months the new St. Pete resident has been the face of this race - the driver on all the Tampa Bay area billboards, the go-to guy for promoters and press. And still, Wheldon's win is only the beginning of the too-good-to-be-true finish in the IndyCar Series' inaugural street course event.
He beat his three Andretti Green Racing teammates - Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and polesitter Bryan Herta - to the finish line of the 1.8-mile temporary street course in downtown St. Petersburg by 1.4 seconds, giving the team an unprecedented four-car sweep. It was the second win in three races for Wheldon, 26, of Emberton, England.
Just as significantly, the ultra-competitive event crowned a successful road racing foray for the oft-criticized series. It also proved to be a feather in the cap for a large and embracing Tampa Bay area crowd and for the race promoter, which just happens to be Andretti Green Promotions.
If this had been a NASCAR event, race fans would suspect a setup.
``I've never felt happier after a race,'' said winning team co- owner Michael Andretti, whose 18-year-old son Marco won his first race earlier in the day.
``Even I am starting to believe the fix was on,'' Andretti said, laughing.
``Professionally I can't remember a day I was happier, even when I was driving cars. From the time I woke up and saw the sky, I knew it was going to be a beautiful day.''
Beautiful, but not always pretty.
Wheldon's move to the front with nine laps remaining in the 100-lap race was the only pass for the lead. But there was plenty of drama.
Australian rookie Ryan Briscoe was leading with 10 laps to go when he collided on Turn 4 with a hard-charging Kanaan, who was running second at the time. As Briscoe slid into the wall and Kanaan righted his car from the contact, Wheldon drove around both of them and into the lead for good. Kanaan closed up behind Wheldon at various points on the track but was never able to get close enough for a pass attempt.
``I had to make the most of the areas where I was quicker and I was able to capitalize on that [Kanaan-Briscoe contact] and stay in front,'' said Wheldon, who drives the No. 26 Honda-Dallara.
The incident was not so tidy for the other two.
Briscoe believed he was run over by an overly aggressive Kanaan, who had collided with Briscoe's teammate Darren Manning a few laps earlier in the same turn.
``I held my line,'' said Briscoe, who finished 14th and notched his third DNF (did not finish) in as many races.
``He [Kanaan] won the championship last year, but I think he's got to settle down a little bit. He may be the champion, but he isn't God.''
Kanaan - and his teammates - saw the situation differently. Kanaan said he already had overtaken Briscoe through the corner and was merely defending his position.
``People that are trying to put me in the wall every time I try to pass them, they get what they deserve,'' said Kanaan, who has 18 consecutive top- five finishes and joins Wheldon as the only drivers to finish every lap of all three races this year.
``You want to play hard? We played hard. If you're man enough to hold your line, then hold it; if not come talk to me.
``But when you're young and stupid you do things like that. I guess he's going to get old and wise.''
Michael Andretti was more concise.
``When Briscoe did what he did, Briscoe got what he deserved, and that was to end up in the wall,'' said Andretti, the son of legendary racer Mario Andretti.
While it proved to be the most meaningful collision, the Kanaan-Briscoe incident wasn't the only one. The race was slowed five times for caution periods.
Two of those involved another prerace favorite team, Marlboro Team Penske.
Two-time Indy 500 winner and outside polesitter Helio Castroneves was eliminated from the race after completing only 12 laps.
His No. 3 Toyota collided with A.J. Foyt IV's Toyota, which already was a lap down. Castroneves was running in third place when the lead pack of cars came up on the slower cars of Foyt and Ed Carpenter. The first two lead cars maneuvered around and Castroneves followed into Turn 12, but Foyt said he was unable to avoid him. The 20th-place finish dropped Castroneves from third place in the points standings to fourth, 52 points behind new leader Wheldon.
It was the beginning of a frustrating day for the Penske organization. Its other car, driven by two-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr., ran off course after contact with rookie Tomas Enge and brought out the fifth caution flag.
All week, drivers praised the wide, sweeping course and anticipated room ``to play.'' To a person, they were eager to go road racing again and for some it had been years since they turned right in real competition.
Accidents eliminated eight of the 21 starters, but behind the leader there were plenty of daring passes and avid competition.
``I think the fact Tony and I probably passed 30 or 40 cars is the most amazing thing and exciting thing [about this race],'' Franchitti said.
Pit strategy certainly played into track position. The first eight lead changes occurred during pit stops with six different drivers holding the point at various times. Pit sequence put Briscoe out front for a race-best 43 laps, and he led three times before surrendering the position for pit service.
As for Wheldon, he'd only been out front for a solitary lap near the race's midpoint before getting his winning opportunity.
Wheldon was in a prime spot to watch Kanaan, his teammate, chase down Briscoe on the final restart with 10 laps remaining. He even gives the current IndyCar Series champ an assist for his victory.
``I honestly had an inkling of what was going to happen, especially after what happened with [Darren] Manning,'' Wheldon said. ``It slowed TK [Kanaan] enough and I was able to just sneak by the inside.''
``Watch out. St. Pete is my hometown and the four Andretti Green boys are going to be on a rampage tonight.''
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