Justin Wilson scores podium after starting in the back at Long Beach

Robert Laberge

Justin Wilson battled back from a 25th place starting position to score a surprise podium in Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

In finishing third, Wilson has solidly established himself as a championship contender in the early stages of the season and will exit Long Beach fifth in the standings, just 18 points behind leader Helio Castroneves.

Wilson never expected to break the top-10, much less compete for the victory after crashing in practice on Friday and being unable to turn competitive qualifying lap on Saturday due to a missing rear-wing sticker that is mandatory in IndyCar.

Thus, coming away with a podium is more than Wilson could have hoped for after the rough start to his weekend.

Wilson attributed the strong run to having an extra set of alternate red tires and a solid pit strategy. He pitted on Lap four and methodically worked his way through the field before entrenching himself in the top-five in the second half of the race.

Getting around pole-sitter Dario Franchitti on lap 56 would ultimately be enough for a podium finish.

"We just went out there and pushed hard the entire race," Wilson said. "I think that helped, having an extra set and being able to pick a few people off. It's great to get this result for the Boy Scouts of America and everyone at Dale Coyne Racing. They worked hard to put the car back together on Friday, so I have to thank them."

Championship contenders entering each race this season have struggled, allowing Wilson to stay within clear reach of Castroneves' pace after just three races. Wilson attributes the close standings to parity more than attrition and believes it is a sign to come.

"There are so many drivers in this championship that are capable of winning races," Wilson said. "When you do your lap in the car, you don't know when you come in if you are first or 25th. It's really tough the way it is.

You can't afford to miss anything. You can't afford to have a bad result. The way this championship happens, when racers have had bad results, it opens it right up. I think it's going to be more intense and interesting as the season goes on."

Takuma Sato won the race and delivered Honda its first victory of the season. Wilson believes the first two races wasn't entirely indicative of what the manufacturer was capable of this season and added that Honda has also established depth with some of the underfunded teams like Coyne and Foyt.

"I felt it was more circumstance than anything else that Honda appeared lacking," Wilson said. "It's nice that it all worked out here. Really that kind of determination, that grit to recover and come back strong is what Honda is all about. That's what I've witnessed spectating over the years since they've been competing, is that they never give up until they win."

And after starting deep in the field on Sunday, a podium for Justin Wilson has to be considered everything but a victory, especially in the bigger championship picture.

More from SB Nation IndyCar:

Takuma Sato captures Grand Prix of Long Beach to become first Japanese IndyCar winner

Graham Rahal scores first podium for family team

Helio Castroneves escapes crash-filled Long Beach with points lead

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