ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - One came from last to second. The other overcame controversy to finish third.
Two-thirds of the podium in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg traveled different routes for their results Sunday. Graham Rahal battled back from his 24th-place starting position and contact early in the race to finish second behind winner Sebastien Bourdais. Alexander Rossi survived disputed contact with two laps remaining to finish third.
After the incident with Robert Wickens as the two were battling for the win, Rossi wasn't penalized by INDYCAR race stewards. The driver of the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda for Andretti Autosport indicated he felt vindicated by the decision, saying Wickens, in the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, forced him out of the racing line as the two cars approached Turn 1 on a restart with two laps remaining.
"They made it very clear in the drivers' meeting that the rule on blocking was you can't move in reaction. If he defended the inside, initially, out of Turn 13 or even halfway down the (front) straight, and then I continued to go to the inside down the white line, then yeah, that's my decision and that's putting my car in danger. But there's no reason why I can't pop and stay next to him. I don't have to (put) all four wheels on the part of the track nobody goes on."
The incident took Wickens out of the race and slowed Rossi enough that Bourdais moved into the lead and Rahal into second. Rahal said he had a line on Bourdais on the restart, but decided to play it safe.
"I looked up and saw marbles (off the racing line) and decided this wasn't going to work," said Rahal, driving the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. "I literally said to myself, 'Take fourth, let's go home.' Next thing I know, I saw smoke and bam. It worked out prettier than that. Frankly, I'm more than pleased to be on the podium."
Wickens, who had a lengthy meeting with Verizon IndyCar Series officials after the race, disagreed with Rossi's assessment of the incident, saying he was uncertain if the race was being restarted because the flashing lights on the pace car weren't turned off as is customary on the final caution lap before a restart.
"I don't know what the series was doing, really," Wickens said. "They never turned the lights off on the pace car. They did an entirely different pace car procedure than what they'd done on every other yellow flag all day. As the leader, I didn't have the opportunity to control the pace. We were following the pace car, and then he just came into the pits."
While INDYCAR agreed the pace car lights should have been extinguished, the sanctioning body said teams were made aware by radio communications that the restart was imminent and Wickens had ample time to be ready for the restart once the pace car exited the track and entered pit lane.
Although Rossi hadn't spoken to Wickens immediately after the race, he said he intended to.
"I will at some point, and obviously express my feelings," Rossi said. "I'm sure he's upset, and he has a right to be. … If you were in the lead of the race with two to go and you didn't finish, you'd be upset, yeah."
The dizzying conclusion to the season opener left Bourdais atop the podium and the point standings after the first of 17 races, with Rahal in second place, 11 points behind.
"It all worked out," said Rahal, who started the race last after being penalized in qualifying on Saturday for causing a red-flag stoppage when his car stopped on track. "I look at ourselves as championship contenders. I don't care what happened the last two days, we still believe in that. We know that we are. This is a great way to start."
The Verizon IndyCar Series resumes Saturday night, April 7, with the Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway. Live coverage begins at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.