By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
Nobody is likely to mistake Dale Coyne Racing for an elite outfit like Team Penske or Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which compete for wins every race and championships every year.
Since ending his journeyman career as an IndyCar driver, Coyne has survived as a car owner mostly by taking on drivers who bring their own money or sponsorship to his team.
That doesn't mean he isn't serious about racing.
"You do what you need to do to make it in this sport," Coyne said last weekend at St. Petersburg, Fla., where the IndyCar Series opened its season with the Honda Grand Prix. "But the team is coming together very nicely. I think we can surprise some people this year, particularly on the road and street courses."
Justin Wilson, Coyne's latest driver, did just that at St. Petersburg, starting second, leading the most laps and finishing third behind Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Vision Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose finish was almost as surprising as Wilson's.
"I never thought I would be disappointed with a podium finish," said Coyne, whose best finish as a car owner came in 2007 when Bruno Junqueira was second in a Champ Car race in Belgium. "But we truly had the best car of the weekend and certainly had a well-deserved win in our sights."
Just being at St. Petersburg was a major accomplishment for Coyne and Wilson.
With the reeling economy effecting just about every level of racing, at least half of the 22-car grid for the IndyCar opener was up in the air until the last few weeks.
Wilson, a proven talent who won races and finished second in the Champ Car series in 2006 and 2007, and also won a race as an IndyCar Series rookie in 2008, found himself without a ride after last season due to a lack of sponsorship.
He finally signed with Coyne late in February.
"It was a difficult offseason," the British driver said. "I didn't know if I was going to be back in a car. It was very frustrating after the progress we've made over the years. Now, to get back in a car and prove to everyone that I can still do this, it means a lot."
Hunter-Reay, who also has won in both Champ Car and IndyCar, has a similar story.
Lack of sponsorship at the end of 2008 also cost him his ride and left the Florida native wondering if and when he would race again.
Then, just one week before the opener, an offer came from Tony George, the owner of Vision Racing and the founder and CEO of the IndyCar Series.
Vision is another team still searching for its first race win. In fact, Hunter-Reay's podium finish was the first ever for George's team.
"My deal came together a bit later than Justin's," Hunter-Reay said. "But, it was funny on the last caution, I'm looking at the top three (and thinking) both Justin and I, race winners from last year, are in the top three and we were both unemployed a month and a half ago.
"It's just awesome. This is what racing is about, and this is definitely why people love it, things like this," he added. "You don't always want to see the Penske cars and the Ganassi cars in the top four. You want to see things like this."
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., who is now a driving coach for the Indy Racing League, which sanctions IndyCar, said the results at St. Petersburg validate the cost-cutting efforts by the league and show how close the competition is going to be this year.
"What it really showed me was you take a low-budget team and put a good driver in there, and they can go fast," Unser said. "That will probably change a little once we get to the ovals because then it becomes the development of the car, things like (wheel) bearings and the time spent with the body and all that kind of stuff. That's when it's really going to show the difference between the big-budget teams and the lower-budget teams.
"But, as far as the road courses are concerned, Justin and Dale Coyne Racing really proved a point because that car was a box, stock Dallara, 100 percent. It finished top three. And Ryan Hunter-Reay with Vision, I'm sure that car doesn't have all the tricks to it. It just proves, you just get a good (driver) in there and you're going to do well."
The teams and drivers that transitioned from the defunct Champ Car series to IndyCar at the start of last season, as part of the unification of the two American open-wheel series, also performed best on the street and road circuits in 2008.
Champ Car was mostly a road-racing circuit and most of the drivers who made the move were weaned on tracks with left and right turns. The next race, April 19 at Long Beach, should also favor those drivers, since the temporary street course in Southern California was a longtime Champ Car venue.
Whatever the reason they showed so well in the first race of the year, Wilson and Hunter-Reay could not be more excited -- and relieved.
"From my point of view, hopefully, we'll see more of this," Wilson said. "We're both desperate to prove that we're a valuable asset and need to be here, so that's what we're trying to do, on and off the track."
Hunter-Reay knows it's not necessarily going to be easy.
"As a driver and a team outside of Penske and Ganassi, you've just go to go out fighting every day and punch above your weight and just do everything you can to make a difference in the race car," he said. "I definitely believe we can have a lot more of that this year."