ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With the top four in front of him in Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season-opener Juan Pablo Montoya, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves, all race winners and two series champions (JPM and RHR), the surprise top finisher behind them in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was Mikhail Aleshin in fifth.
Even more surprising that the result came by the Russian after a late arrival back in the U.S. once he got his visa sorted, after missing the two final preseason tests at Phoenix and Sebring in late February and early March.
Aleshin, in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, started 17th and made it up to 10th place by Lap 45.
But where Aleshin really emerged was after the eight-car pileup on Lap 57. He was 18th at the time after his pit stop sequence, and made it up to seventh once the wreck was clear.
Aleshin got ahead of Alexander Rossi for fifth place on Lap 86 and then held the position through to the finish.
It’s his second career top-five (second, Houston race two, 2014) in the championship.
“Some passes, strategy, but a lot of luck,” Aleshin told NBC Sports. “The car was really good.
“Yeah, I think I managed not to crash with all the group of the guys, and I found the reverse really fast. Got out of it without any major problems.
“It’s so very nice to be back like that, and come top-five without any tests. It shows the car and team potential. We can be up there with the No. 7 SMP Racing car.”
With the net gain of 12 spots, Aleshin also moved forward the most of any driver in the field. Tony Kanaan gained 10 spots to climb from 19th to ninth.
Aleshin’s teammate, James Hinchcliffe, ended a lapped 19th after a day with contact and a cut tire in his return to the series after his accident last year in Indianapolis.