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IndyCar series brings an array of stars to St. Petersburg

Rookies to watch

Simona de Silvestro, No. 78, HVM Racing: In Brazil, she became the first driver to lead a lap in a series debut since Graham Rahal won in St. Petersburg in 2008. Pit strategy helped to get her there but she led four laps and the 21-year-old looked comfortable running toward the front until a problem put her three laps down.

ALEX LLOYD, No. 19, DALE COYNE RACING: Though he officially has rookie status, Lloyd, 25, is a familiar name to fans who follow the series closely. The Englishman, the 2007 Indy Lights champion, ran in the Indianapolis 500 the past two years and raced for Coyne in Brazil. Lloyd will finally find a bit of continuity in St. Petersburg — his four series races this far have come with four teams.

By the numbers

5 Top-five finishes for Tony Kanaan in St. Petersburg in five attempts, the only driver who has done that. Four of those were podium (top-three) finishes but he has yet to win here. Also, five drivers have raced in St. Petersburg all five years as an IndyCar event: Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Vitor Meira, Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon.

18 Number of drivers who have led the IndyCar race in St. Petersburg.

33 Number of consecutive races in which Scott Dixon has started in the top 10, a series record. In the opener two weeks ago in Brazil, Dixon started seventh to break a tie with Sam Hornish, who set the mark in 2005-07.

100 Career top-10 finishes for Helio Castroneves, a series record. He broke the century mark by finishing ninth in his hometown, Sao Paulo.

131 IndyCar starts for Castroneves; he's projected to tie the series record owned by Scott Sharp (147) in the season finale.

Web wonders

• Short on info but long on video, danwheldon.com has a slew of clips from St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon's life on and off the track in an easy-to-navigate format.

Helio Castroneves, as one would expect from a driver whose fame extends well beyond the track (see Dancing With The Stars), has a few nice bells and whistles at heliocastroneves.com including a video tour of Team Penske.

Milka Duno has a line of clothing items aimed at kids at milkaduno.com (click on the e-store link). The clothes feature Duno rendered as a cartoon caricature, above.

Jim Tomlin, Times staff writer

Back in the driver's seat

There once was a driver in IndyCar who caught everyone's attention immediately, capturing the St. Petersburg race in his series debut after an impressive rookie campaign in Champ Car. He took the pole in St. Petersburg the next year. He was a young, fresh-faced son of a champion, and an American in a series desperate to increase its domestic appeal. He was even the cover story for the Times' 2009 Grand Prix section.

So, what happened to Graham Rahal, and why was he spending time in the offseason trying to secure a full-time ride … at the ripe old age of 21?

Most consider Rahal, whose father Bobby won three CART titles and one Indianapolis 500, to be one of the rising stars of American racing. But in the offseason Graham suddenly found himself without sponsorship and thus out of a job after Newman/Haas/Lanigan announced that it would field a car only for Hideki Mutoh. But Rahal kept plugging away. Enter driver/owner Sarah Fisher, whose team is increasing its partial schedule over last year to include road and street circuits for the first time. Her team decided that it would better advance its road/street program by having a different driver in the car, and Rahal wound up signing with them for two races including a return to St. Petersburg, site of his career highlight. And indications are that a full-time ride back with N/H/L might be near.

Takuma Sato, No. 5, KV Racing: He was the top rookie in qualifying in Brazil; not a surprise since referring to a 33-year-old with 90 Formula One races under his belt as a rookie is a bit of a misnomer. His first-lap accident in Sao Paulo ended his day. Mario Moraes had three straight top-five finishes in this car toward the end of 2009.

Seizing the moment becoming Power's specialty

Will Power has turned a short-term deal into a real shot at an IndyCar championship.

Power showed up at last year's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as Penske Racing's replacement driver for Helio Castroneves, who was sidelined as he awaited the outcome of his federal tax evasion trial in Miami.

As it turned out, St. Petersburg was the lone race that Power drove in the red-and-white No. 3 car so closely associated with Castroneves.

Power, 29, won twice in Champ Car in 2007, then took the series finale in Long Beach in 2008 before ending the year in IndyCar with KV Racing.

Last year, after Castroneves returned in Long Beach, Power got a part-time deal from Penske for the No. 12 car. Power was second in Long Beach then further cemented his credentials with a victory from the pole in Edmonton, only to have his season end at Sonoma, Calif., when he broke two vertebrae in a practice accident.

"The only time I ever feel it is if I really bend over and stretch it out," Power said this week in a teleconference. "I was actually surprised how well it's healed."

And he recovered sufficiently to race in this season's opener — and did so with a full-season ride for Penske secured. Again, Power took advantage of an opportunity, leading the final four laps to win the opener March 14 in Brazil.

One thing Edmonton, Long Beach and Brazil have in common: They're all street circuits. Now here comes another one this weekend in St. Petersburg — making Power, who so recently didn't have a full-time ride, one of the favorites to win.

"I'm not sure what it is about street circuits, but there's a lot more challenges on a street circuit than there are on ovals or road courses, you know, with uneven surfaces, bumps, different surfaces, grip level wise, and you've got a wall," he said. "So you can't make a mistake. You've got to creep up on it all weekend."

IndyCar series brings an array of stars to St. Petersburg 03/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 27, 2010 4:51pm]

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