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A big but disappointing day for de Silvestro

ST. PETERSBURG — Simona de Silvestro always had the respect of fellow IndyCar drivers.

She just never had the car to compete.

The 24-year-old Switzerland native flashed her potential with Sunday's promising-yet-frustrating sixth-place finish in her KV Racing Technology debut.

"It's a big disappointment, sure," de Silvestro said.

The fact that de Silvestro could call her best performance in two years a disappointment shows her new expectations. Her Lotus-powered car didn't crack the top 12 at all last season, but her new No. 78 Chevy was one of the quickest this weekend.

De Silvestro never dropped out of the top six and rose to third with 30 laps to go for what would have been the best finish of her four-year career.

But her softer red tires wore down faster in the closing laps than the harder black tires others used. That forced her to back off the throttle and eventually led to Marco Andretti, teammate Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon to passing her in the final two laps.

"She deserved the podium," Kanaan said.

De Silvestro, whose career-best finish of fourth came here two years ago, said her team can learn from the strong 108 laps and two rough ones.

"Those guys have been practicing running up front the whole year last year," de Silvestro said. "For us, it's pretty new."

BIG DAY FOR ANDRETTI: James Hinchcliffe's victory was only part of a strong race for Andretti Autosport.

Andretti joined Hinchcliffe on the podium after charging from fifth to third in the final six laps.

"For me, it felt like a win," Andretti said.

His joy comes from four seasons of struggles. Despite a blue-blood pedigree and a strong team, Andretti had only five finishes on the podium and one win among his past 66 starts entering Sunday.

So he dedicated himself in the offseason, focusing on his weakness — street and road courses such as St. Petersburg.

"All weekend, he drove really well," said Michael Andretti, his father and team owner. "You could see all the work he put into it over the winter. It's paying off."

Andretti newcomer E.J. Viso started 22nd but finished seventh in his best result over the past eight races.

DIXON RISES: Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon rebounded from a poor qualifying effort to pull out a top-five finish.

Dixon, the three-time Grand Prix runnerup, didn't advance out of the first qualifying segment and started 20th.

He found speed in the morning, clocking the third-fastest time during the final practice session, and climbed the leaderboard all race.

Dixon's No. 9 Honda placed fifth to snag his fifth top-10 in St. Petersburg.

"We were slow and steady — well, not slow," Dixon said. "The car was actually fairly decent. Whatever group we got into we could run with."

HONDA STRUGGLES: Chevrolet engines, which took seven of the top nine qualifying spots this weekend, kept their advantage over Honda.

Chevy swept the podium with Hinchcliffe, Helio Castronenves and Andretti while Kanaan was fourth in his Chevy. Dixon was the only Honda driver to finish among the top seven.

Honda also powered four of the five cars that were parked because of mechanical failures.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

A big but disappointing day for de Silvestro 03/24/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 9:27pm]

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