The mayor of Hinchtown is the new king of St. Petersburg.
James Hinchcliffe earned the first victory of his IndyCar car career in Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, passing defending race champion Helio Castroneves on a restart on Lap 85 and leading the final 26 laps.
"I'd like to say it was some masterful trickery," Hinchcliffe said of his winning pass, in which he went right coming out of Turn 1 on the 1.8-mile street course to get by Castroneves, who skidded under braking. "I figured we'd lead a couple of laps but he (would) get us back. To hold off Castroneves, a guy who has won this race three times, for that many laps? It took absolutely everything."
Hinchcliffe, 26, earned his first trip to Victory Lane but not his first IndyCar honor. He was voted the series' most popular driver last year, and Sunday's win could help catapult the funny, outgoing Toronto native onto a bigger stage — and boost traffic at his website, hinchtown.com, where he calls himself mayor.
He raised his national profile last year, starring in a commercial during which he borrowed a marching band to interrupt NASCAR's Danica Patrick. (The ad was for GoDaddy.com, which sponsors both drivers).
"I think some people thought maybe I wasn't taking my job seriously enough," Hinchcliffe said Sunday. "Hopefully, (the win) proves you can be a joker off the track but still get the job done on the track."
"It's good for all of us," said his team owner, Michael Andretti of Andretti Autosport. "He's not only a great personality, but he also performs on the racetrack. He's got it all."
Castroneves, though disappointed to lose, also said Hinchcliffe's success could boost IndyCar.
"I'm sure Hinch is probably not going to sleep tonight," Castroneves said. "Good for the series. The series needs that."
Castroneves' Penske Racing teammate, Will Power, started from the pole for the fourth year in a row but an incident with JR Hildebrand during a caution flag period knocked him down in the order. Power finished 16th.
Third-place Marco Andretti gave his father's team two drivers on the podium, passing Simona de Silvestro for the spot with two laps to go. De Silvestro wound up sixth in a race 10 laps longer than previous years.
Hinchcliffe said he felt a vibration in his car during the first stint on soft-compound tires.
"We were running rough on red tires," he said. "That was a pretty big factor in the decision to run blacks (harder compound tires) in the final stint there."
In late 2011, Hinchcliffe lost his ride at Newman-Haas when the team folded. He wondered what his next move was until Michael Andretti called him.
Until then, "I was in Indy. I was sitting at home, kind of contemplating life and thinking about what I was going to do at the university," Hinchcliffe said.
St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon, who in 2005 won his adopted hometown's race, the Indianapolis 500 and the series title for Michael Andretti, had signed to return to the team for the 2012 season. But Wheldon died in an accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011. That's the car Hinchcliffe took over, with the Wheldon family's blessing.
Hinchcliffe said he is close to Wheldon's sister, Holly, who greeted him after his victory.
"To get the first win here, in his hometown, with his family here, it means so much more," Hinchcliffe said. "There's nowhere that I would rather have had my first win, I don't think, in this car than right here in St. Pete."
And there's no better way to be a popular man.
"I think fans love a winner, and now we can call ourselves that," Hinchcliffe said.
Jim Tomlin can be reached at [email protected]