- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. (AP) - Ryan Briscoe was thinking about settling for a second-place finish when he suddenly saw opportunity ahead of him on the track.

Getting ready for a restart with just 14 laps remaining, Justin Wilson, who had led more than half of Sunday’s season-opening Honda Grand Prix inexplicably slowed, just enough to give Briscoe a run.

“I was a bit surprised,” Briscoe said. “Justin had been doing great restarts, and it looked like he changed his strategy. He was normally accelerating right at the entrance of the far chicane, really going deep into the last corner and then it was difficult to stay close.

“I didn’t want to take a big chance and throw away points. But, this time, he just let me stay close up until the last corner.”

When the green flag waved, Briscoe got a very quick start, driving to the inside of Wilson and easily slipping past as they drove into the first corner on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary road circuit in downtown St. Petersburg.

Briscoe stayed out front the rest of the way and Roger Penske has apparently found his new team leader.

With the future of longtime Team Penske star Helio Castroneves in doubt as he stands trial on federal tax evasion charges, and replacement Will Power new to the team, Penske has placed some added responsibility on the slim shoulders of 27-year-old Briscoe.

Briscoe, starting his second year with Penske, responded Sunday with his third career IndyCar victory.

“It’s certainly been tough not having Helio, but no matter who my teammate is going into this year, my approach was the same,” Briscoe said. “I wanted to come in carrying off the experience I gained last year and try to kick the season off gaining points and trying to go for this championship.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay also got past Wilson on that same restart, but Briscoe was able to hold him off to the end, despite the fact that the challenger was on the new softer alternate tires that provide more grip.

There was one last restart, but Briscoe was able to fend off a strong move by Hunter-Reay, who only got his ride with Vision Racing seven days earlier.

Leadership aside, 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 with Penske.

“Finally,” Briscoe said as he emerged from his No. 6 Dallara-Honda. “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 lost his ride with Rahal Letterman Racing at the end of last season when the team lost its sponsorship and 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, Power sixth and 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.”

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