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Castroneves wins Indy Grand Prix

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Helio Castroneves' strategies were all about preservation: First the fuel and then the lead.

Castroneves deftly managed both tasks and held off Scott Dixon to win the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Sunday, coasting to the finish line after coming off caution with two laps to go.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner took over in the stretch run when Marco Andretti headed to pit road with seven laps to go.

"I felt like I had a better car than Marco but unfortunately, I just couldn't pass him," Castroneves said. "And I was just patient and waiting for an opportunity. I guess we were able to be smart enough to save a lot of fuel.

"Towards the end, we just had a yellow flag. I didn't ask for that, especially when you have Scott Dixon and those guys behind you. I just decided to make sure not to give any opportunities for those guys, and that's what I did."

Castroneves then treated the new IndyCar venue to his "Spiderman" move, climbing a chain link fence in front of the grandstands and pumping his fists to the fans. He had to scout for a suitable fence to scale before the race after a fan asked him in his hotel elevator Sunday where he'd do his trademark move.

"Until that point, I didn't have anything in mind," Castroneves said.

He won by just over half a second over Dixon and nobody else was closer than 7 seconds to the lead, making it a two-man chase at the end. He didn't offer any opening for Dixon to get by him on a narrow track that offers few easy spots to pass and makes fuel strategy as important as any daring on-track maneuvers.

"The only thing you can do is try to push the guy as hard in front of you to make him keep looking in his mirrors and overshoot a corner and make a mistake," Dixon said.

The savvy veteran Castroneves didn't bite.

Dario Franchitti was third. Will Power had won the first two races and was dominant in qualifying and practice but had to settle for fourth, still comfortably hanging onto his points lead. He came in with a 44-point lead; Castroneves earned 50 points to move into second place, ahead of Franchitti, Justin Wilson and Dixon.

Power pitted first while Castroneves waited. His patience paid off late as well.

"The only way to stop Power was trying to do something different," he said. "Today was an opportunity to do that, and it worked out perfectly."

Added Dixon: "We were of the notion that whatever Will was going to do, we were going to do the opposite."

The race marked the first time since Indy Racing League was formed in 1996 that every driver who started the race was still running at the finish.

It was another big day for Penske Racing even with Power failing to become the first driver to win the opening three IndyCar races. Castroneves, Power and Ryan Briscoe made up half the top six.

"It is great having Helio win, which makes it three wins to start the season for Team Penske," Power said.

Danica Patrick continued to struggle, finishing 19th — right where she started.

Marco Andretti was fifth, and left an impression on the winner.

"He was driving more patient and reminded me of his father, Michael Andretti," Castroneves said.

Castroneves had plenty to celebrate, winning for the third time since returning from his acquittal on tax charges last year. It was the 17th career victory for the charismatic Brazilian and former "Dancing with the Stars" contestant.

It was also his first win as a father. Girlfriend Adriana gave birth to daughter Mikaella on Dec. 28.

"It was great to see my daughter there," he said. "I wanted to take a picture with her on the podium, so when she grows up 20 years later she can look and be proud of dad that we were sharing good moments."

Power started on the pole and led 12 laps before taking a pit stop. Andretti was up front for 58 laps, raising hopes of his first win for team owner and father since his rookie season in 2006 at Infineon.

"He pretty much set the pace for most of the race, so it was kind of a situation where you knew he was kind of dead in the water if he didn't get another yellow (flag)," Dixon said.

Spectators lined the trackside hills for the first IndyCar event in a state long dominated by NASCAR races at Talladega about 20 minutes down Interstate 20. The 7-year-old track, initially built for motorcycle races, drew praise from drivers for the scenery but also the assessment that the narrow layout would provide scant opportunities to pass without risky moves.

It proved true in a race with no significant mishaps. Both cautions, totaling five laps, came because of mechanical troubles not dustups. Running such a fuel strategy-based race only looked easy.

"It takes a lot of discipline," Franchitti said. "You're lifting on the straights and you're carrying speed into the corners. So you end up hustling the car through the corners and you're asking it to do things you didn't set up for because of the lack of straight line speeds. That makes it quite interesting."

There were seven lead changes and three leaders.

The first caution came early when Takuma Sato's car stopped on lap 12 with a broken throttle cable. It spoiled what could have been a big day after he started sixth in just his third IndyCar race.

Simona de Silvestro's late car troubles prompted the second caution.