ST. PETERSBURG — A race-record seven cautions consumed 28 of 100 laps of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday and the mayhem began early.
On the first right turn, pole-sitter and defending race winner Graham Rahal slowed into and through Turn 1 and Tony Kanaan, who started third, nosed him into the dirt.
Kanaan had to pit to replace his nose piece and both he and Rahal spent the rest of the race trying to recoup. Kanaan finished fifth and off the podium for the first time at St. Petersburg; Rahal was seventh.
Kanaan blamed Dario Franchitti for a "dive bomb" in the first turn and forcing Rahal to brake to avoid him. Franchitti said he was simply using a move he'd practiced in the morning warmup to use at the start and said Rahal braked "really early."
Rahal admitted he was "conservative on the start" but blamed Kanaan alone, saying "It's absolutely ridiculous and you would expect a guy like that with experience to know it's the first corner of the first lap of the first race of the season. Why would you make moves like that?"
DANICA-POW: Danica Patrick appeared irate with Raphael Matos, gesturing and doing all the talking as they waited along a barricade for a safety truck to collect them following a Lap 32 wreck. Patrick was 11th when Matos appeared to undercut her line in Turn 11, sending her into a tire barrier in Turn 12 in one of the most spectacular wrecks in Grand Prix history. Neither was injured.
"There's not room for two people there. It's just not an ideal spot to try and make something happen," she said.
When told that Matos had said she had hit him, Patrick responded firmly, "I turned into the corner. Because it was my line. What was I going to do?"
THE DAY THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN: Scott Dixon's IndyCar title defense begins from 16th place after another fruitless finish in St. Petersburg.
On Lap 81, Dixon made contact with the right rear of Hideki Mutoh entering Turn 1. Dixon then hit the tire barrier in Turn 3 and was done.
"I think it was just a tough day," said Dixon, who finished 22nd here last season. "We went straight to the back of the pack. We tried to go out of sequence a little bit to try and jump those guys. We got traffic early and we couldn't really do much. It was a tough day."
ERASED: St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon raced inside the top five for much of the race — as high as second — in his season debut with Panther Racing but wrecked with 13 laps left when he was sideswiped by rookie Robert Doornbos in Turn 4. Wheldon, who eventually finished 14th, appeared to lose momentum through Turn 1 as two cars passed him, allowing Doornbos to catch him in a high-speed section.
"On the last restart I got a real good run on (Kanaan) out of the last corner and went down to the inside, but anytime you pass TK it's a challenge and I braked just a little bit late and missed the apex and he got me back and it just kind of bottled me up," Wheldon said.
SPARK PLUGS: Team Penske has won three of five Grand Prix, in 2006-07 with Helio Castroneves. … Drivers complained that tire remnants made traction dicey in certain spots on the course and just 12 of 22 cars finished.