- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - Ryan Briscoe held off Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the IndyCar Series season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday.

Briscoe, driving for Team Penske, passed Justin Wilson for the lead on a restart 14 laps from the end of the crash-filled Honda Grand Prix. The Aussie then stayed out front as Hunter-Reay, driving on the new softer alternate tires that provide more grip, also got past Wilson and tried to chase the him down.

There was one last restart on the slick 1.8-mile, 14-turn circuit, but Briscoe was able to fend off a strong move by Hunter-Reay, who only got his ride with Vision Racing seven days earlier.

Briscoe was relieved to finish the 100-lap event after crashing out here in his two previous starts _ the first with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005 and then last year, his first season with Roger Penske’s team.

“Finally,” Briscoe said as he emerged from his No. 6 Dallara-Honda after getting his third IndyCar win. “This place has been bad to me. It feels so good to finally get to the end of this race.

“And it’s great to start off the year like this.”

Hunter-Reay, who lost his ride with Rahal Letterman Racing at the end of last season when the team lost its sponsorship, was signed for 2009 at the last minute by the team owned by Indy Racing League founder Tony George.

He made the most of his opportunity, giving George his best finish as a car owner.

“It’s unreal how the last few days have gone,” Hunter-Reay said. “I met with the team for the first time on Sunday and showed up here Friday and they were still trimming down my seat.”

Hunter-Reay, who won on the road course at Watkins Glen last year, said he didn’t want to take any big chances as he chased Briscoe on the treacherous track in the waning laps.

“I was thinking long term with points,” he said. “You couldn’t step a foot off line without jeopardizing your car, so I kept it in line for the team.”

Wilson, another late addition to the 22-car field, made his debut with Dale Coyne Racing a good one, dominating at times before fading at the end.

“I couldn’t quite get the restart there at the end,” the British driver said. “But it was a good day, a good way to get started with this team.”

Former series champion Dario Franchitti, returning to IndyCar after spending part of last year in NASCAR, ran a solid race and finished fourth.

Graham Rahal, who won his IndyCar debut here last year and then won his first series pole this week, was spun out by Tony Kanaan in the first turn of the race as all the leaders bunched up. Rahal and Kanaan both had to pit for repairs and wound up charging from the rear of the 22-car field.

Kanaan wound up fifth and Rahal followed Will Power, Briscoe’s new teammate, across the finish line in seventh.

The 20-year-old Rahal, son of three-time series champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, was still upset after the race.

“I was conservative on the start and I’m guessing it was Kanaan that punted me,” Rahal said. “It’s obviously ridiculous and you would expect a guy like that with experience to know it’s the first corner of the first lap of the first race of the season. Why make a move like that?”

Kanaan, a former series champion, said, “I feel sorry for Graham, but he got chopped up. … On the start, Dario dive-bombed everybody (on the inside) and Graham tried to avoid him and he came to a stop. I couldn’t avoid him.”

A new factor in this race was the option of using the alternate tires provided by Firestone. The rules required each car run at least two green flag laps with the alternates but, otherwise, the teams were allowed to make their own decisions.

“Having the option tire really spiced things up,” Hunter-Reay said. “There was a lot of pressure to make the right decision at the right time on tires, but they worked to my benefit today.”

Fan favorite Danica Patrick and reigning series champion Scott Dixon both had forgettable days.

Patrick wound up 19th after a crash involving rookie Raphael Matos. Dixon, who was 22nd here a year ago, finished 16th after making contact with Hideki Mutoh and then slamming into the wall.

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