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Ryan Briscoe wins Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The path to the end of Ryan Briscoe's first IndyCar chapter swerved into a tire barrier in Turn 10 here four years ago. The beginning of the next phase might have begun with a bold pass in Turn 1 here on Sunday.

Briscoe, cast as Team Penske's leader pending the outcome of Helio Castroneves' tax evasion trial, darted inside Justin Wilson with 13-plus laps left and held on through a series of cautions to win the Indy Racing League's season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

For Briscoe, it was another redemptive effort at a track that had bedeviled him.

"I've led laps each other time I've raced here, but we've just never gotten the job done," said Briscoe, who exorcised some horrid memories with a win at Milwaukee last year. "Certainly another sort of relieving win as I crossed the finish line."

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Wilson were unexpected second- and third-place finishers, considering each had finalized deals to race for their comparatively small teams in the past several days.

"As a driver and a team outside of Penske and Ganassi," Hunter-Reay said, "you've just got to go out fighting every day and punch above your weight."

Pole-sitter and defending race winner Graham Rahal never led a lap after being spun off the course on the first turn of the race (finishing seventh) and 2008 series champion Scott Dixon was involved in an accident with 19 laps left and finished 16th.

Briscoe, 27, tugged off his head gear after parking on pit road, sighed and smiled to his surrounding crewmates, "This place has been hard on me."

Indeed. Briscoe came here in 2005 as a former Formula One test driver and highly anticipated rookie for Chip Ganassi Racing. He led with nine laps left before he made a move veteran Tony Kanaan disapproved of and was punted off course. His team owner fumed over his third straight wreck to start the season and following more travail — including being parked after numerous wrecks at Milwaukee — the team released him after a horrific accident at Chicago which required nearly a year to overcome.

Back in the IndyCar series full-time last year with Penske, Briscoe qualified fifth here and led in the rain, but clipped a wheel in a turn and finished 23rd.

Briscoe's father, Geoff, a Sydney pickup salesman, said his son was "very determined to win this race.

"(Team owner) Roger (Penske) is obviously a very good judge and he knew what was going on at Ganassi," he said. "(Briscoe) had never driven on ovals (before 2005) and he's doing it every week and has the accident and then they dump him. Roger saw what was going on and gave him an opportunity."

And the expectation that he will be a championship contender this season, Penske president Tim Cindric said.

Wilson, a 2008 race winner released by Newman/Haas/Lanigan after last season because of sponsor shortfalls, put himself in position to give tiny Dale Coyne Racing its first win with a clinical pit stop on Lap 70.

He spurted off pit road just ahead of Briscoe, then held off the Australian despite cold tires. Wilson, who led a race-high three times for 52 laps, was expanding his lead when Ed Carpenter's crash prompted the first of four cautions that consumed 18 of the final 28 laps.

Briscoe darted into the lead on a Lap 87 restart and won by 0.4619 seconds. Briscoe led twice for 46 laps. He left with a surfboard as part of his trophy and some better memories.

The place had gotten a little easier on him.

Ryan Briscoe wins Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 04/05/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 4:02pm]
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