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  1. Sports

Conor Daly enjoys his time as Grand Prix contender

IndyCar driver Conor Daly takes a selfie with Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill after driver introductions before the start of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday (3/13/16). DIRK SHADD | Times

ST. PETERSBURG — Conor Daly was the surprise of Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for a chunk of the race, leading 15 laps in the IndyCar opener.

Daly credited pit strategy that put him out front in his Dale Coyne Racing Honda, and he held off a group of eager Penske Racing machines until eventual winner Juan Pablo Montoya passed him under braking entering Turn 1 on a Lap 64 restart.

"It was nice to be up there. We got the Coyne strategy going," Daly said. "The car was fantastic on reds (the faster of the two Firestone tire options) and I just kept learning the whole race. … To follow Montoya? You don't get a much better instructor than that."

A pit stop on Lap 13 put Daly, in his seventh career IndyCar race, on that different strategy. He took the lead when he stayed on track as most of the field made stops under a yellow flag on Lap 48. But the 24-year-old finished 14th after an on-track incident canceled out the benefits of their strategy.

"The only issue we had is that coming out of the pits (Carlos) Munoz clipped us in (Turn 3) so that gave us debris and we had to pit again. It would have worked out fine," Daly said,

Still, Daly, the son of former CART and Formula One driver Derek Daly, said he gained confidence from his time in contention; after losing the lead he ran 16 laps in second place.

"That's the most encouraging thing is that we were there, we were fighting at the front, and that's a good place to start the season." he said.

TURN 4 DRAMA: Daly wasn't the only driver unhappy with Munoz at the end of the day. On a restart on Lap 57, the Andretti Autosport driver clipped Graham Rahal from behind entering Turn 4, turning Rahal around and causing a logjam which caused several cars to stop. IndyCar issued a stop-and-go penalty to Munoz for the incident, which caused Rahal, Jack Hawksworth, James Hinchcliffe and Sebastien Bourdais to lose a lap.

LIONHEART IN PRINT: A book about the late Dan Wheldon, Lionheart -- remembering Dan Wheldon, will be published in May. The book by Andy Hallbery and Jeff Olson covers the former St. Petersburg resident's career from carting through his two triumphs at the Indianapolis 500. The coffee-table book, costing $74.99, will be available soon for presale and some proceeds will benefit the Alzheimer's Association and the DCW Foundation.

NO LOCAL JOY: Bourdais, a St. Petersburg resident, finished 21st of 22 cars, completing 87 of the 110 laps after having contact in his KVSH Chevrolet. Orlando's Spencer Pigot, in his IndyCar debut for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, was a lap down in 14th.

RACE BITS: Mikhail Aleshin, in his second IndyCar race after being injured in a 2014 practice crash at Fontana, Calif., finished fifth for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Teammate Hinchcliffe, the 2013 St. Petersburg winner, was 19th, a lap down, in his first race since his near-fatal practice accident last year at Indianapolis. Marco Andretti spun after contact while trying to make a pass in Turn 1 on Lap 46. He was 15th.

ON THE SCENE: Bucs All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, attending his first IndyCar race, was the grand marshal and exchanged jerseys prerace with defending series champion Scottt Dixon. Asked if he would want to drive an IndyCar — which would be a tough fit for a 6-foot-4, 295-pounder — McCoy said, "Nah. I'm not messing with that. They told me they go 240 (mph at Indianapolis), 750 horsepower? No." Other athletes from outside motorsports attending were Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, who took a prerace ride in the IndyCar two-seater with racing legend Mario Andretti, and new baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. … NHRA star Courtney Force, Rahal's wife, was in Rahal's pit along with her father, 15-time NHRA champion John Force. Courtney said of watching her husband, "I'm probably more nervous not being in the seat. I'm not a very good spectator."