By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
A.J. Foyt Racing entered the St. Petersburg street circuit Sunday with high expectations after a series of great test runs during the off-season. Once the green flag came out, their expectations took a backseat and became a race of recovery for both Brazilian drivers Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist, who finished 11th and 24th, respectively, in the INDYCAR Series season opener.
The first problems from the Foyt camp unfolded on Lap 1 after Andretti Autosport driver Zach Veach punted 10th place starter Kanaan in Turn 9, sending the most experienced driver around. Despite the contact, Kanaan kept his car from stalling and return to the fight in 23rd.
Meanwhile, Leist was running a solid race in his debut, staying inside the top three after an impressive qualifying run of fourth on Saturday. However, it all changed it on Lap 15 when he reported that he was stuck in fourth gear and fell off the pace. Rather than intervening the rest of the field, he brought his No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet to pit road to diagnose the problem. Once his crew repaired it, Leist re-entered the race nine laps down, but his race didn’t last much longer.
On Lap 28, the 19-year-old Brazilian’s day was diminished after his car veered left into the Turn 4 wall, bringing out the third full course caution. He got out of his car unharmed and was the first retiree of the afternoon.
Leist said he battled with understeering after exiting the pits.
“This was a pretty good weekend till now. Pretty happy with the performance we had – we were fast in all of the sessions. Today it was unfortunate,” Leist said.
“We had a shifting problem when I was running fourth, so I couldn’t change gears up or down. I stayed in pit lane for like 10 laps trying to solve the problem. (They went back out on track.) Then we had another problem and came back to the pits.
“The third time I went back on the track, I had a mega understeer going into Turn 3 and I missed the corner and hit the wall. Happy for the performance – we had a fast car. I think it was my fault when I hit the wall that time. The car was good. It happens, so we’ll go to the next one.”
In the midst of those issues, Kanaan struggled to crack the top 10 throughout the race and relied on strategy and other drivers misfortune to gain valuable track position. It wouldn’t be until Lap 40 when he reached back to his starting position in 10th.
Once the track was cleaned up in Turn 12 where Jack Harvey crashed to bring out a full course caution, Kanaan restarted seventh on Lap 46. Nine laps later, he pitted from the sixth position.
During his stop, the No. 14 team made no changes and stayed with the primary (black sidewall) Firestone tires. Will Power, who was running behind Kanaan, beat him out of pit road.
With 40 laps to go, Kanaan was still trailing Power for the 12th position. A few laps later, he gained a spot from Zachary Claman DeMelo for 12th as the final set of pit stops commenced.
Kanaan wouldn’t make his final pit stop until Lap 84, changing from primary to the alternative red tires. After the cycle of stops were completed, he returned with the rest of the field in 13th. Prior to his stop, he reached as high as sixth in the running order.
A few laps later, Kanaan made his final overtake of the day, passing Spencer Pigot for 12th. A late-race crash with two laps to go that took out pole sitter and race leader Robert Wickens in Turn 2 improved Kanaan to 11th.
“Eventful day. I got hit in the beginning – that wasn’t good, but we came from the back and passed a lot of cars,” Kanaan said.
“We had a clean day in the pits, which I asked the guys for that. The goal was a top 10 and we finished 11th, so came up a little bit short, but we’ll take it. We’ll go from there.”
Despite a disappointing day for both Brazilians, they’ll look to turn things around at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona April 7. Both Foyt prepared cars shown quick pace during testing in February including the rookie, who was fastest throughout.