James Hinchcliffe is getting used to partying in New Orleans.
The veteran IndyCar driver was a guest at one of the biggest Mardi Gras parades in February. So, he looked like a natural tossing beads Sunday after winning the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana in Avondale, La.
The Canadian had a wet track and a fortunate pit strategy to thank for his fourth career triumph, and won by leading most of the last 14 laps under caution. But he’ll take it.
“The inaugural event at any track is always special,” said Hinchcliffe, who rode in the Bacchus parade and was among the drivers most involved in promoting the race. “To be able to come out on top in that first race means a lot.”
Helio Castroneves overcame early front-wing damage that put him near the back of the field to finish second for Team Penske, giving him a consecutive top-five finishes to start the season.
“In normal conditions, it’s extremely difficult to come back,” Castroneves said. “The way it was playing around with so many yellows and so many variables, amazing that we never gave up and were able to go back in the game.”
James Jakes was third to give Schmidt Peterson Motorsports two podium finishers.
The biggest enemy of green-flag racing wasn’t so much the rain, which largely stopped during the race, but tricky wet spots that remained after much of track was dry and drivers switched to slick tires.
The variable conditions brought out one caution after another as drivers spun or slid off the track, causing what was scheduled as a 75-lap race to end as a timed race after just 47 laps. Several drivers lost control on the final turn before the front straight, where water was flowing across the spot where they wanted to accelerate.
“Our cars, in those conditions, are very difficult,” Castroneves said. “It was like ice.”
More than half of the race — 25 laps — was run under yellow. All of the full-course cautions came after the first 15 laps, when most drivers began changing from wet-weather tires to slicks.
That meant drivers raced under green for only seven of the last 32 laps. And it was then that Hinchcliffe, who made his only pit stop on Lap 13, cycled out front.
Under caution on Lap 33, the first eight cars pitted, while Hinchcliffe, who was ninth, was told by his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team to remain on track.
“I was kind of 50-50 on it when they made the call and I saw nobody else stay out,” Hinchcliffe said. “Obviously, that’s why those guys do what they do and that’s why I just shut up and drive.”
When he first got to the front, Hinchcliffe figured he would have to create a gap in front during the next green flag stint and make one more quick pit stop for fuel.
“At first, I was cursing the yellows that were coming out,” Hinchcliffe recalled. “But a one-stop strategy — who would have thought that would play out.”
As it became clear he wouldn’t pit again, Hinchcliffe said he started holding his thumb over his fuel gauge “because I didn’t want to see how low it was getting.
“We were really relying on weather coming,” he added. “Obviously, that didn’t happen, so without all the yellows we would have come up short.”
The last chance to race under green was cut short by a spectacular three-car wreck involving Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais early in the first lap of a restart with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Hunter-Reay squeezed Pagenaud onto a wet spot, which caused the Frenchmen to slide onto grass and then back on track at the next turn, where he essentially broadsided Hunter-Reay and collected Bourdais — frighteningly close to the cockpit — before all three cars slid back off track and into a tire wall.
Pagenaud was out of his car quickly and checked on Bourdais, then appeared to chastise Hunter-Reay.
“I’m not sure what Hunter-Reay was thinking,” Pagenaud said. “He just drove us off the track and I’m just glad everyone is OK.”
Among the drivers who finished, Hinchcliffe — a three-time winner in 2013 — was the only one to pit just once.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the season-opener two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, started on pole after qualifying was rained out Saturday. He led the first 13 laps under green until he pitted for slick tires. He finished fifth after pitting only twice.
Tony Kanaan, who started in third, entered the pits on Lap 11 with three other cars for slicks.
The move backfired when he went off track in Turn 10 and had to spin through rain-soaked grass to rejoin the track.
By then, he was out of the top 20, but managed to work his way back to sixth, ahead of defending series champion Will Power in seventh, Graham Rahall in eighth, Joseff Newgarden in ninth and Luca Filippi in 10th.
Scott Dixon, who turned the fastest lap of the weekend on the 2.74-mile, 13-turn track in a dry practice on Saturday, had to start 15th based on his St. Petersburg finish and wound up 11th.
Force wins in Las Vegas
John Force won the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals for his record-extending 142nd victory, beating teammate Robert Hight in the funny car final.
The 65-year-old Force had a 4.148-second pass at 312.35 mph in his Chevrolet Camaro for his fifth victory at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hight finished in 4.154 at 306.05.
“Robert is my best team,” Force said. “He’s hot on that Christmas tree so I really got to get after him. The win was good but all that we’ve been through, with financial change, my sponsors promised to keep me competitive, win championships and I could build safety. We were lucky today and I’ll take lucky any day because it buys us some time to learn.”
Richie Crampton won in top fuel, and Erica Enders-Stevens topped the pro stock field.
Crampton had a 3.902 at 301.33 for his third career victory. He beat Larry Dixon in the final.
Enders-Stevens raced to her 13th career victory, topping Vincent Nobile with a 6.674 at 207.24 in her Chevy Camaro. Enders-Stevens won the K&N Horsepower Challenge on Saturday.