Will Power opens IndyCar season with St. Pete win

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Will Power clearly had the car to beat in today’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and the Team Penske pilot made it count en route to taking the checkered flag in the season-opening race for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Power took the lead from pole sitter Takuma Sato with an outside pass in Turn 1 on Lap 31, and basically never looked back on the way to not only his second career win in St. Pete but also the fourth win in his last six races dating back to last season.

The Australian ended the 2013 season on a tear with wins last fall at Sonoma, Race 2 of the Houston doubleheader, and the season finale at Fontana. That late-season surge made him a title pick of many observers going into 2014, and he’s living up to the billing so far.

However, Power’s win didn’t come without controversy. After an extended caution, Power was set to lead the field to a restart with 28 laps remaining. But instead of accelerating, Power appeared to slow down.

The field proceeded to stack up behind him, and in the process, Jack Hawksworth tagged another car from behind before skidding into the inside wall of the frontstretch, collecting Marco Andretti.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Marco’s team owner and father, Michael Andretti, put the blame on Power, while Team Penske’s Tim Cindric said that Power told him the green flag had been thrown earlier than he expected.

Additionally, TV replays showed that Power had not yet reached the restart cone when the field began to stack up.

After the cleanup, Power held the lead on the next restart with 23 laps to go. Ryan Hunter-Reay managed to get past Helio Castroneves for second in Turn 1, but the American was unable to reel in Power during the closing laps and finished 1.9 seconds back. Castroneves settled for third and the last spot on the podium.

In Victory Lane, Power re-iterated his claim that the green had been thrown early on him.

“I thought we were meant to go in that [restart zone],” he explained to ESPN’s Jamie Little. “So, I was surprised. I don’t even know what happened behind me! What happened?”

When Little explained the accident that occurred between Hawksworth and Andretti, Power responded: “I lifted a little. I didn’t touch the break at all. You can take a look at my data – I did not touch the brake.”

As for what his peers thought about the matter, opinions were mixed. Notably, Power’s teammate Castroneves thought that things were “a little strange” on the first restart.

“[Power] was being very tricky for sure, and I understand,” said Castroneves. “It was too slow on the first one and on the second one, obviously, he played a little bit. I got hung out to dry and Hunter-Reay took advantage of it [for second].”

However, defending series champion Scott Dixon, who finished fourth, believed the ill-fated restart wasn’t Power’s fault.

“I don’t think Will did anything wrong – they moved the restart zone late this morning in warmup, so I think he was probably a little slow, if anything,” Dixon said.

“But I think sometimes, it’s just people being too greedy, man. They’ve got to come down hard on that so nobody tries to take advantage by jumping a few spots early on.”

Simon Pagenaud, also a trendy choice for the 2014 championship, came home fifth ahead of Tony Kanaan, who finished sixth in his first race for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sato converted his pole into a Top-10 finish with a seventh, and was followed by Justin Wilson in eighth, Josef Newgarden in ninth (after starting last on the grid), and Ryan Briscoe in 10th.

As for former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to open-wheel racing, it was not an altogether pleasant one.

Montoya, who is coming off a seven-year run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was not a factor during the 110-lap race and finished 15th in a day he’ll likely chalk up as a learning experience.

The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action on Sunday, April 13 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. You can watch it live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra starting at 4 p.m. ET.

FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG
Unofficial Results

1. 12-Will Power
2. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay
3. 3-Helio Castroneves

4. 9-Scott Dixon
5. 77-Simon Pagenaud
6. 10-Tony Kanaan
7. 14-Takuma Sato
8. 19-Justin Wilson
9. 67-Josef Newgarden
10. 8-Ryan Briscoe
11. 17-Sebastian Saavedra
12. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (R)
13. 11-Sebastien Bourdais
14. 15-Graham Rahal
15. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya
16. 20-Mike Conway
17. 34-Carlos Munoz (R)
18. 18-Carlos Huertas (R)
19. 27-James Hinchcliffe, one lap down
20. 83-Charlie Kimball, two laps down
21. 98-Jack Hawksworth (R), Lap 83, Contact
22. 25-Marco Andretti, Lap 82, Contact

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).