Marco Andretti opens 2013 with St. Pete podium

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Welcome back, Marco Andretti. Perhaps a new number (25 from 26) and livery (blue and red for RC Cola) could be the recipe for an improved season.

The Andretti Autosport driver, already starting his eighth IndyCar season but having only just turned 26, turned in a sterling performance to open his 2013 account. From seventh on the grid, Andretti registered his best St. Pete finish and first top five on a road or street circuit since Toronto in 2011, when he finished fourth.

“I don’t want to speak too soon,” Andretti admitted, cautiously. “There’s still a long way to go in the season. I’m definitely pleased to reap some of the benefits for how hard I’ve been working, not only physically, but as you say, where I’ve been lacking. For me it felt like a win, but we’ll take this. I think if we can have days like this all year, we can be in contention for a championship.”

He had to muscle past Simona de Silvestro to secure the podium, as her tires were going off toward the end of the race. The move for third was a clean one through Turn 14 just before the white flag.

Andretti has opined throughout the offseason on his struggles on street courses in particular, and also how disappointing it was to play a supporting role out of the spotlight in 2012 within the team as Ryan Hunter-Reay won a championship and James Hinchcliffe took over the high-profile GoDaddy account.

“It’s a tough feeling going home with the defeat I had last year, knowing your teammate beat you and stuff like that,” he said. “But you also need to look at the bright side of it. You’re driving for the championship team. You know you have the equipment to get the job done.

“So on that side of it, you need to take that confidence and go. I mean, my mentality changed this year because instead of looking back and saying, ‘Oh, man.’ If you’re thinking about how terrible last year was for me, then we talk about confidence, you’re not going to have that confidence.”

Sage Karam, Tony Kanaan fastest in Monday’s practice for Indy 500

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In the second-to-last practice session of the week, Sage Karam paced the 33 drivers qualified for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 on Monday.

Karam had a field-best speed of 226.461 mph, followed by Tony Kanan (225.123 mph), Ryan Hunter-Reay (224.820), Charlie Kimball (224.582) and Alexander Rossi (224.507).

Sixth through 10th fastest were Will Power (224.445), Helio Castroneves (224.368), Marco Andretti (224.148) and rookie Zachary Claman Demelo (224.91) and Scott Dixon (223.966).

Power and Castroneves ran the most laps of all drivers at 120 and 118, respectively.

Two other Team Penske drivers struggled to get speed out of their cars. Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden was 28th-fastest (221.982 mph) and Simon Pagenaud, who was the slowest (220.902 mph) of the 33 cars on-track.

Pole sitter Ed Carpenter was 14th-fastest with a best speed of 223.573 mph in a 100-lap effort.

Most drivers were in race trim or were testing things for Sunday’s Greatest Spectacle In Racing such as fuel mileage, chassis setup and more.

Rookie Matheus Leist missed most of the session with an apparent electrical problem that kept him to just 19 laps.

There was one incident of note during the 3 ½ hour session: IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens crashed coming out of Turn 2 during the first hour of practice.

Wickens appeared to skim the outside SAFER Barrier, went left and then violently turned hard back into the outside retaining wall.

MORE: Wickens wrecks during Indy 500 practice

The Honda-powered machine for the Canadian driver suffered heavy damage to the right side, particularly the right front tire and the right side of the front end.

There will be no further on-track activity for the Indy cars until Friday’s final practice to fine tune things for Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

We’ll have the full practice speed chart, as well as What Drivers Said, shortly. Please check back soon.

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