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With 4 in top 8, Honda off to better start at St. Pete than last year

Firestone 600 - Practice

Ryan Hunter-Reay has plenty to smile about after finishing third in the season opening IndyCar race at St. Petersburg.

Jonathan Ferrey

The 2016 season has started off significantly better for Honda compared to how 2015 began.

In last year’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Hondas struggled to find speed and power, with the highest-finishing driver being seventh-place Ryan Hunter Reay.

In addition, Honda had just two other drivers behind Hunter-Reay in the top 10 and nine more from 11th through the rear of the 24-car field.

This past Sunday, though, things had a much more successful air. Hunter-Reay was again the top finishing Honda driver, earning a third-place podium finish.

“Passing a Penske car here for the podium is an accomplishment,” Hunter-Reay said. “They run so well here, every year. I used everything I had to get by [Helio] Castroneves. I used up my rear tires catching him but I think he used his up even more by trying to stay ahead of me.”

Overall, Honda placed four drivers in the top eight finishers, with Mikhail Aleshin (fifth), Takuma Sato (sixth) and Carlos Munoz (eighth).

Hondas also took six places in a row, from 11th through 16th, as well as 19th and 20th in the 22-car field.

“We believe we’ve made significant improvements in both our engine and aero packages this year, and today’s results reflect that,” said Art St. Cyr, President of Honda Performance Development. “Given Team Penske’s historic dominance at St. Petersburg, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s third-place run was an encouraging start to the season.”

One significant note was rookie Conor Daly paced the field for 15 laps mid-race before contact with a curb dropped him to a 13th-place finish.

“It was really nice to lead the race, and fight at the front with the Penske drivers,” Daly said. “I thought we were headed for a great finish. After our last pit stop, I braked late to try to pass [James] Hinchcliffe, but then [Carlos] Munoz came flying up the inside and I had to ride up over the curbs.

“That damaged the front wing, so I had to make an extra stop. But I can’t complain. You always want more, but running competitively like this was a great start to the season.”

Admittedly, there was some disappointment, as the cars of James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal were all collected in contact from other drivers.

Sato and Hinchcliffe were involved in an opening lap wreck. Both were able to recover, and while Sato was able to rally to a sixth-place finish, Hinchcliffe was involved in another wreck on Lap 57 (that also involved Rahal) that ended his hopes for a top-10 showing.

To view highlights from both the IndyCar race as well as the Acura Motorsports’ Pirelli World Challenge at St. Petersburg, check out this YouTube video from Honda Racing: HPD Trackside.

The next stop on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is a Saturday night race under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2. It will be the first oval race of the season and will be televised on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

Follow @JerryBonkowski