ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Two-time defending series champion Dario Franchitti won IndyCar’s season opener on Sunday, showing he’s once again the one to beat in open-wheel racing.
Franchitti grabbed the lead early on and was hardly challenged in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The Scottish driver was nearly perfect for 100 laps on the scenic, 1.8-mile street course, beating pole-sitter Will Power to the finish line by more than seven seconds.
Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion who joined his new team Monday, held off Simona de Silvestro over the final few laps for third. De Silvestro enjoyed her best finish in 18 career starts.
Danica Patrick was 12th, a disappointing start to her seventh IndyCar season. Patrick, who drove four races in NASCAR’s second-tier series before resuming her full-time IndyCar gig, was penalized one spot on the final lap for making “avoidable contact” with JR Hildebrand.
Patrick bumped Hildebrand from behind, turning him around. That was nothing compared to the early chaos. There were four full-course cautions in the first 14 laps.
A few hours after teammates Sebastien Bourdais and James Jakes crashed during a warmup session, five cars — all of them from the sport’s top three teams — found trouble in the first turn.
Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were involved, as were two-time series champion Scott Dixon and Andretti Autosport teammates Mike Conway and Marco Andretti.
Andretti drove into Dixon from behind, sending Andretti for a wild ride. He flipped and landed upside down. He escaped without injury, walked toward his pit, paused to watch a huge replay board, then blamed three-time Indy 500 champion Castroneves for the melee.
“Helio just drove it in on all of us,” Andretti said. “He missed his braking point by a decent chunk. It’s unfortunate.”
The race was stopped several more times on restarts, all of them coming under the sport’s new rules. In previous years, the series used single-file restarts. But this season, IndyCar switched to double-file restarts similar to those in NASCAR.
Drivers thought those dicey situations would be attractive to fans and figured they also would cause attrition. They were right on both accounts. Fans cheered the first-turn frenzy and several cars sustained damage on restarts.
Andretti questioned the decision.
“That’s what happens when you try to imitate NASCAR,” he said. “Our cars have too much power to start right nose-to-tail, you know. It creates disasters. It’s good for the fans; it’s not good for me today.”
Patrick ran into trouble before the midway point of the race. She drove into the rear of Justin Wilson on lap 44 and broke her nose wing. Her team fixed it, but she wasn’t able to make up ground on the leaders.
Franchitti, meanwhile, was simply pulling away from his closest competitors.
Franchitti edged Power for the championship in last year’s season finale and opened 2011 with another strong showing for Chip Ganassi Racing. He took the lead on the third lap, was dominant from there and seemingly could have slowed down over the final few laps to take in the sights on the waterfront drive.
It was Franchitti’s first victory — and fifth top-five finish — in six starts at St. Petersburg.