NASCAR

Simona de Silvestro stuns field in IndyCar opener

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)

Tony Kanaan checked his mirrors repeatedly, trying to figure out who was all over his rear wing.

Kanaan didn't recognize the paint scheme or the car number.

Finally, he asked his crew. Simona de Silvestro, someone told him. Kanaan didn't respond. All he wanted to know was who was pressing him at every turn over the final few laps of IndyCar's season opener.

His response came after the race, when he playfully bowed to de Silvestro during an interview session.

De Silvestro, a 22-year-old Swiss in her second IndyCar season, was the biggest surprise in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. She finished a career-best fourth Sunday - eight spots higher than Danica Patrick - and showed she has the skills to run with open-wheel's best.

''I used every single strength and experience I had to hold her off,'' said Kanaan, the 2004 series champion.

He did, but just barely.

De Silvestro provided more of a challenge than anyone expected.

She did it without the benefit of teammates. She did it without the kind of funding that IndyCar juggernauts Penske and Ganassi have. She did it without her regular engineer.

''I think it was one of my best races I've done,'' de Silvestro said. ''I didn't really do many mistakes and I really liked that.''

So did everyone else.

After the race, de Silvestro climbed out of her car, got on her scooter and zipped through cheering fans toward her paddock stall. She had sponsors, family members and another big crowd waiting for her.

''She'll enjoy it and be happy and smiling,'' team engineer Brent Harvey said. ''She's real kind and has a big heart for everybody and everything. It won't change her one bit. It'll probably make her even stronger and she probably wants it about 100 times worse more now than when she started.''

And Harvey has only known her a week.

Her former engineer, Michael Cannon, left to join Kanaan's new team at KV Racing. So de Silvestro quickly found Harvey, who had been working at Panther Racing.

''It was a tough moment for the team last weekend,'' de Silvestro said. ''We were putting much scrambling together to try to find a new engineer and I think we made the right choice.''

There were some hurdles, though, mostly because of the way de Silvestro explains problems with her race car.

''Lot of sound effects,'' she said.

Huh?

''She talks about stuff being mushy or gushy,'' Harvey said. ''I don't know how to fix mushy.''

De Silvestro and Harvey had few communication issues in St. Pete. Although the car wasn't perfect in practice and qualifying, they got it dialed in during a warmup session Sunday morning. She started 17th and started picking off competitors lap after lap.

It helped that she managed to avoid the first-lap chaos, which took out five cars, and several other problems on dicey double-file restarts.

Once she got near the front, though, she stayed with the leaders and really started pressuring Kanaan over the final few laps. Sure, she was driving with newer tires and using her push-to-pass button, plus Kanaan had been with his thrown-together team just a few days.

But none of that mattered in the grand scheme of things.

''She learned more getting a fourth and not being able to get by Tony,'' Harvey said. ''I'm sure she will (get by him) next time.''

De Silvestro has steadily improved since racing go-carts in France and Italy. She couldn't race in Switzerland, where auto racing has been prohibited since a deadly accident at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955. Eighty spectators were killed, prompting several European countries to ban the sport.

Most relented after safety improvements were made, but ''Switzerland is still sleeping,'' de Silvestro said.

After spending time in the Formula Renault series in Italy, de Silvestro made her way to America and got her first taste of ovals.

Nonetheless, she finished 14th at last year's Indy 500 and was named the event's rookie of the year. Her best results came on road courses, though, with top-10 finishes at Toronto and Mid-Ohio. She was even better on the streets of St. Petersburg, with most everyone making note that she crossed the finish line about 50 seconds sooner than Patrick, one of the sport's biggest stars.

Harvey sidestepped questions about whether de Silvestro can be better than Patrick, who has one victory in 99 career IndyCar starts, but made it clear that expectations are high for his driver.

''She's a champion,'' Harvey said. ''She could be a champion for sure. She has that heart, that desire. You can see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. That's how good she can be. ... I think her driving will show what she has.''

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