Helio Castroneves had twice won the St. Petersburg Grand Prix before and twice climbed the fence in Turn 1 to celebrate.
So on the occasion of his third St. Pete victory, which came Sunday in the Izod IndyCar Series' season opener, Castroneves decided to mix it up.
The Penske Racing driver stopped his car in Turn 10, hopped out and scampered up the fence – his traditional celebration – and then returned safely to earth.
But when Castroneves turned around, it hit him: He had inadvertently celebrated in the turn recently rechristened "Dan Wheldon Way."
The oversized street sign honoring Wheldon, the St. Petersburg resident who was killed in an October crash, shone like a beacon to Castroneves. He asked a track safety worker if he could cross the track and, after getting permission, he leapt onto the retaining wall and climbed up to Wheldon's sign.
As the fans in the Turn 10 grandstands cheered, Castroneves patted the marker and pointed to it. When he landed on his feet, Castroneves bent down to say a prayer and marveled at the coincidence of the celebration spot he chose.
"It's amazing," Castroneves said. "You can never question God's mystery. It was a perfect fit for this race and a perfect way to start the season."
In many ways, Sunday's race was held in Wheldon's honor. It was the first IndyCar race since the accident, and the late driver and his family made their home just three miles from the street course – close enough to hear the cars.
"This is his track," third-place finisher Ryan Hunter-Reay said.
Tributes were paid to Wheldon throughout the day. Before the race, fans were asked to stand and applaud when a Wheldon highlight reel called "Celebrating The Life Of A Former Champion" was played; his sister, Holly, flew in from England to wave the green flag and start the event.
As the honorary starter, Holly Wheldon stood on the pre-race driver introductions stage with other dignitaries. Wearing a black sun dress and a black belt with two gold leafs, she received hug after hug from the drivers who raced with – and loved – her brother.
When Dan Wheldon's close friend Scott Dixon hugged Holly, he asked if she was holding up OK.
She nodded yes, but the day was certainly tough on everyone.
"It's still so fresh," Dixon said after finishing second. "In some ways, it's almost fitting the first race was in St. Pete. For me personally, I just miss the guy. It sucks not to be able to turn around and see him coming through the door with those bright white teeth smiling at you.
"It's nice to see Holly here this weekend (and) have her support for a lot of the guys and teams. (But) it just sucks. It just plain sucks."
Holly Wheldon also presented the winner's trophy to Castroneves in victory circle, then posed for a photo with the top three finishers.
Castroneves was more than willing to share the spotlight with Wheldon's memory. At the dedication of "Dan Wheldon Way" two weeks ago, Castroneves got an unexpected hug from Wheldon's 3-year-old son, Sebastian.
"I didn't know why," he said. "I didn't know if he was mixing me with his dad. I was very touched by it."
Though Sunday's race marked a step forward in the grieving process – at least the drivers got the first event since their friend's death out of the way – Wheldon's memory will weigh heavily on the series for a long time to come.
"It is still wide open, the wound," Hunter-Reay said. "... He was there with us today, in every way. We wish we could have him back, but such is life. Not fair."
Said Dixon: "It's always in the back of your mind. I don't think that's going to change."
Here are the results from Sunday's Izod IndyCar Series race at St. Petersburg:
- Helio Castroneves
- Scott Dixon
- Ryan Hunter-Reay
- James Hinchcliffe
- Ryan Briscoe
- Simon Pagenaud
- Will Power
- E.J. Viso
- Charlie Kimball
- Justin Wilson
- Josef Newgarden
- Graham Rahal
- Dario Franchitti
- Marco Andretti
- Alex Tangliani
- Oriol Servia
- Rubens Barrichello
- Ed Carpenter
- JR Hildebrand
- Mike Conway
- Sebastien Bourdais
- Takuma Sato
- Katherine Legge
- Simona de Silvestro
- Tony Kanaan
- James Jakes