With rain looming, Leonardo Maia holds off Dan Di Leo.
By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003
ST. PETERSBURG -- Know this about Leonardo Maia: He can back up his trash talk and, when it comes to winning Barber Dodge Pro Series races, he does it in style.
Maia started from pole position and never let anyone pass as he held on for victory under caution in the season-opening race. It was the second-year driver's second win in the series, duplicating his flag-to-flag victory last year at Road America.
"It was a great weekend," said Maia, who earned $13,000. "I started out quick and stayed quick for the whole weekend."
As wire-to-wire wins go, however, it was far from easy.
Maia took the lead on the first lap and watched as Dan Di Leo, Memo Rojas and Josh Beaulieu fought for position behind him. That helped stretch his lead and allowed the driver from Miami to find his rhythm around the 1.806-mile street circuit.
"I just relaxed and got into a groove," Maia said. "I was just driving until I ran into some lapped traffic. That's what let Dan catch me."
Di Leo, who recorded the fastest lap and finished second, picked his way through slower cars better than the leader and found himself looking at Maia's gearbox in no time.
"The traffic was actually to my advantage because it helped me gain slightly," Di Leo said. "Then I clipped the wall in Turn 5 with my left front, and it let Leo push his gap to about a second."
Maia used the extra cushion to ease around the track, making certain not to make any major mistakes on the slick surface. His biggest lesson came on Lap 2 when Beaulieu made a slight mistake and wound up hard against the wall, finishing last in the 27-car field.
With rain threatening and the race winding down, a yellow flag was thrown for debris, allowing Di Leo to pull up on Maia's wing for the restart. Maia took the restart with two laps to go and got a little loose coming out of the Turn 14 hairpin.
Di Leo saw his opportunity and jumped but his car also wiggled slightly and he was forced to let off the throttle. Both drivers regained control and the race was on -- until Turn 10 when the final yellow came out thanks to a three-car tangle back in the pack.
"I made him look in his mirrors little bit, I tried to get the lead as quick as I could," Di Leo said. "We're good friends, and he's been trash talking all week. Unfortunately he was able to win this round. But there's nine (races) left. We'll see him at the end of the year."