ST. PETERSBURG — One of the biggest stories entering the 2016 IndyCar season is James Hinchcliffe's recovery from his injuries sustained last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Less well-known is that his teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Mikhail Aleshin, has gone through a similar process in preparing for today's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Aleshin (pronounced al-OH-shin), the only Russian-born driver in series history, was 16th in points as a rookie in 2014, with seven top-10 finishes including second place in the second race of the Houston doubleheader.
But Aleshin's season ended painfully. He spun in practice for the season finale at Fontana, Calif., and Charlie Kimball was unable to avoid a collision, taking Aleshin's car into the fence.
The 27-year-old Moscow native suffered broken ribs and a broken right clavicle as well as a concussion.
"It definitely shook him up. It was a big crash," team co-owner Sam Schmidt said.
After recovering, Aleshin spent most of last season back in Europe, in the World Endurance Championship and European Le Mans sports car series, but always had his eye on returning here in the No. 7 car.
"I wanted to be back here in IndyCar because it's one of the greatest series," Aleshin said Saturday. "The cars are really strong here."
He did get a chance to return for SPM's IndyCar effort for last year's finale, finishing 10th at Sonoma, giving his optimism for this season.
"I feel more comfortable on the tracks," Aleshin said. "For example, even without the tests I came back here and I felt comfortable from the first laps. The main thing here in IndyCar is knowing the tracks. Because the tracks are so specific, every track in unique."
Schmidt also pointed out that Aleshin didn't get as much preseason testing as Hinchcliffe.
"But it is good to get a guy back for the second year," Schmidt said. "… I think it'll take him a little bit of time to get up to speed and get out the cobwebs but we have high expectations there."
Aleshin and St. Petersburg's Sebastien Bourdais made light contact in Turn 3 in Saturday's practice and argued about the incident on pit lane.
Back home again: As the buzz builds for today's race, there's another buzz that's going to get louder in the next two months: The one for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"I don't want to say it's everything, but … we've been working on those cars for months," Team Penske owner Roger Penske said. "I think the team's going to be strong."
Marco Andretti said he is focused on today but admits the Brickyard is often in the back of drivers' minds.
"It's hard to not take away from what we're doing right now," Andretti said. "(The Indy 500 is) something we all think about all the time, but to really dig into it, it will be after the Grand Prix of Indy."
Race bits: Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill will ride with racing legend Mario Andretti in the two-seater IndyCar in prerace ceremonies today. … Defending race champion Juan Montoya, joined by Penske, placed his plaque at the Victory Circle Monument just outside Turn 10.
Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.