ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The two drivers who dominated the past two seasons of Izod IndyCar Series competition saw their 2012 campaigns get off to a relatively slow start.
Team Penske's Will Power claimed pole position for the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but a strategy decision left him mired in the pack for most of the day on the way to a seventh-place finish.
Things were even worse for four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The Scotsman lined up ninth, struggled in the pack on a similar three-stop strategy as Power and saw valuable points slip away when his Honda engine ran out of fuel on the last lap.
Qualifying looked like a repeat of years past. Power stamped his authority with a lap 0.2 seconds quicker than Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe as Chevrolet-powered cars swept the first five places on the grid.
Simon Pagenaud's Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports entry was the fastest Honda, but the Frenchman was handed a 10-position grid penalty for an unapproved engine change. That lifted Dixon to sixth on the starting lineup and Franchitti ninth.
Dario gained a position as the full 26-car field made it through the first corner without incident. But that was about as good as his day got.
"It was apparent pretty quickly that we didn't have the pace to run up front," he said. "To keep where I was, I was really having to abuse the tires.
"We're gathering information and we're starting to understand the car better and the position we're in," he added. "We have to adapt the car to my driving style, and I think I may have to compromise in a few areas and try some new stuff to get what I need from it."
Power had no such problems at the front of the field. He pulled away to a 2.8-second lead over Briscoe, but the complexion of his race changed when Katherine Legge's Dragon Racing Lotus stopped on the course near the pit exit on Lap 12.
Power zipped into the pits before they were closed for the ensuing full-course caution, and Franchitti followed suit. That committed both drivers to a three-stop strategy for the 100-lap race.
It's also where Power's race went wrong. On the Lap 17 restart, he was pushed wide into the marbles and lost six positions, dropping to 17th place.
From that point, the Australian struggled in vain frustration as he spent the afternoon stuck behind cars he felt were much slower.
"I just got swamped on that first restart, and that kind of screwed us," Power related. "I was just conservative and got in the wrong spot. You can't pass in these things, so you have to make hay when you get a restart. Everyone gets about the same drive out of every corner and these cars just have a lot of grip. Even when I was about two seconds a lap quicker than the cars in front, I couldn't do anything about it."
I just got swamped on that first restart, and that kind of screwed us. I was just conservative and got in the wrong spot. You can't pass in these things, so you have to make hay when you get a restart.
”-- Will Power
After the race, Franchitti joked that passing didn't look so difficult from his perspective.
"It didn't look impossible for a lot of the guys were passing me!" he laughed. "I don't know, because it turned into a fuel-mileage race and I never found myself in a situation where I had a quicker or better car than the car ahead of me. At that stage, I was running the thing so lean to make the fuel-mileage number I was given, so I was a sitting duck.
"But the bottom line is we weren't quick enough. We knew we had to gamble with the strategy to get a decent result."
Franchitti thought he had about a sixth-place car and looked set to finish ninth until he ran out of fuel approaching the last corner of the last lap. Those five lost championship points could prove critical later in the year.
"We didn't get a yellow, and I had to make, I think, 34 laps on fuel," said Franchitti. "When I ran out of fuel, I thought, 'When it rains, it pours!' But I totally understand what the guys on the timing stand were trying to do. We've come out on the right side of that so many times, so I'm never going to second-guess them. They do such a good job.
"We've had a lot of back-and-forth the last couple of days, between myself and the team and Honda, figuring out what we need to improve," Dario added. "We've got a lot of work to do, and I think it shows what a great job Scott did to finish second. He really wrung the neck of the thing to be up there."
Power felt that he had the pace to win the race, but because of the way the strategy played out, he never got to show it. Even at the end, when he got a clear track and was able to show some speed, he had to throttle back in the last few laps to save fuel.
"The strategy we were on could have worked, but my restarts were atrocious and it's impossible to pass in these things," he recounted. "Just one of those days when nothing seemed to go right until the end there. We got a clear track and got a chunk of track position back.
"I'm very happy for Helio," Power added. "He really deserves this victory, and it's great for Team Penske to start the season with a win. We just got shuffled back a bit there after the first pit stop and we just couldn't make up the ground we needed."