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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Castroneves and Team Penske irresistible at Indianapolis

by Gordon Kirby
Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon appeared to be serious challengers to steal this year's Indy 500 from Roger Penske's grasp but in the end Helio Castroneves came through to score a dominant win for Penske. It was Castroneves's third win at Indianapolis and Team Penske's 15th win overall and fifth in the last nine years. Over forty years of racing at Indianapolis Penske's dynastic domination of Indy car racing is expanding rather than diminishing.

In the final sprint to the checkered flag Castroneves was able to pull away from the field, handily beating 2005 winner Dan Wheldon by 1.98 seconds with Danica Patrick taking third place from Townsend Bell and Will Power. Meanwhile, pitstop snafus meant Dixon and Franchitti finished no better than sixth and seventh.

Coming in the wake of his acquittal last month on tax evasion charges Castroneves was very emotional about his third Indy victory and team boss Penske tried to put it into perspective

"To see Helio come back like this shows you," Penske remarked. "Outside he's got that personality that climbs the fence but inside he's tough as nails, and he had to be to go through what he went through in the last six months. It's really a credit to the team. It's great to see how Briscoe ran and Will Power was up there.

"I think about ninety laps to go Dixon and Franchitti were out there doing a pretty good job and I said, 'Boy, it's going to be a long day.' But we stayed on our game plan and our pitstops were sharp. For some reason Ryan thought he had a tire going down and we got a lap down. Then at the end, unfortunately he was about four or five laps short on fuel and had to come in.

"But it was a great day and it's a credit to Tim Cindric. It's about consistency and the years of experience on this team. It's interesting that Rick Rinaman has had twelve wins, not always as a crew chief but certainly as a key part of our team."

Castroneves took up the conversation.

"Normally I cry on the victory lap but today I screamed to celebrate for the guys and everyone," Castroneves said. "I have no words. It was just, let me go. The celebration lap was a very special moment.

"I was a little upset because I kept hearing on the radio that I had to go to victory lane. But I said, I've got to go to the fans because what they did for me through this entire difficult time. They never stopped sending great messages and this was a great way to pay them back. What an incredible win to show to the fans and I will never forget all their many positive messages.

"Roger and Tim Cindric and our partners never stopped believing in me and to give me my life back, to be in a race car again, to be in victory lane at Indianapolis for the third time."

After leading the opening laps Castroneves was passed by Franchitti and then Dixon too, and after a series of early, accident-inspired yellows Helio had fallen back to fifth and then sixth place.

"I was about ready to ask Helio what was going on," remarked Tim Cindric. "But he was as calm as could be. He was a lot calmer than I was because I was sitting there trying to figure out what our next steps were going to be. Just like Indianapolis always is, it's a series of races inside races and you just always have to look at the next stop. You know you have four or five more stops to make it up, but if you can make up one place a stop, all of a sudden you're the leader and we knew we had the right guy behind the wheel.

"It got to the point at the second-last yellow where everybody was really having to save fuel. But that last yellow with Matos and Meira was so long that it put Helio in position for the last twenty laps or so to be able to run flat-out as much as he wanted or needed to."

Castroneves talked a little about earning his third win at Indianapolis and moving into a tie with three-time winners Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser.

"I feel honored to be in this category of drivers," Helio said. "I feel pretty honored just to be here and now being in this type of category with such incredible names, wow! I'm just happy with that. But without a good team and good people around you, you cannot make that. Like I said many times, Team Penske won so many times because they prepared for the race. I again give credit to all my guys and especially Ryan Briscoe and Will Power. The guys did incredible preparation while I was not there.

"During the race I was trying to take it easy. I didn't want to push it. I was waiting for the right time. I just asked them to put me in the lead and I would have no problem. In fact we didn't change anything on the car so as soon as they put me in the lead--boom! The car was just incredible. We were running 220 mph laps even while saving fuel. The guys kept telling me, 'You've gotta save fuel, gotta save fuel.'

"On the backstraight I could not hear because we had a problem with the radio. But every time I came to the frontstraight they were saying, 'You've gotta save fuel.' I was just waiting for the right time and the right time came, like in 2002 and 2001. My engineer Ron Rusewski gave me a great car. When we needed the speed we were right there and when we didn't need to speed we also were very close to the other guys."

Castroneves joked about the dour expression Roger Penske usually wears when he's on the timing stand.

"He only smiles two times," Helio cracked. "When it's his birthday and when he wins the Indy 500! But I tell you one thing. These guys have known me for a long time and they are not only my bosses but they've really become great friends.

"It was just incredible--so many people cheering. It was just incredible and I want to say thank you to everybody who supported me and gave me this extra push when I was there driving the car, and to drive for this man (Penske) is just an honor. And again, I'm just so glad that I'm still doing what I love most for the best in the business."

Penske also talked about his serious demeanor.

"At lap 180 when Tim said we had enough fuel I knew Helio was behind the wheel and he made that restart without Wheldon getting by him that it was ours to lose," Penske remarked. "You have to be rational. If you get excited it doesn't do anything to help you go faster. I think the laptimes Helio was turning--he knew what number he had to make on fuel and was still running in the 220s. Wheldon, you know, is a real competitor and what we didn't want to do was have him jump us on the start.

"You look up at that pylon and see where your number is and see how many laps to go, and I did that a lot today," Penske added. "Of course, I knew who had the wheel, I knew the experience and the preparation we have, and I felt calm. There was no reason to get excited. I talked to Tim and asked him if he had enough fuel and he said, 'No problem.'

"And of course, Helio is part of our family and you're just so happy to see these guys execute like they have. What Indianapolis has done for our company and our 40,000 people and our customers, my family, and building a brand--you could never do it if you can't surround yourself with the Indianapolis 500.

"So for me, just spinning in my head, I say this is exactly what people expect. I've got to take my hat off to Helio and everyone in the team."

Castroneves added special thanks for his crew chief Rick Rinaman, veteran Penske crewman Clive Howell and also to Rick Mears.

"Rick Rinaman won this place twelve times with different drivers," Castroneves remarked. "And when he comes to you and says he had so many other drivers and he's honored to be with you, that's the type of people you want to have right there tightening your wheel because you know they're going to do everything to make this happen. I can't stop thanking them because without a great team and great strategy you can't do what we did.

"Even today with the problem on the radio we had to go to a lot of communication and Rick Mears was there for me and Clive Howell was there for me as well. It was great synchronization from those guys. We never lost any calm from those issues we had and that's what it takes to win this race."

Penske also discussed how he and his team coped with Castorneve's tax trial.

"The big question was, what's going to be the final answer?" Penske commented. "Helio and I talked almost every night. Initially we talked about a race where he was so many seconds ahead or so many seconds behind as we went through four or five months of discussion. But Tim Cindric and our sponsor, we met, we talked about it. We sat down with Helio and said, 'Look, we've got a situation we've got to deal with. We will stay with you 'til the final answer.'

"Obviously, as the season was going to start he understood that we needed to put someone else in the car. We said you need to focus on your situation but the moment that we get the word that you're ready to go we're going to have a car for you. I think we saw that at Long Beach. We were able to give Will a good car. He sat on the pole and finished second.

"I guess I had so much faith that Helio hadn't done anything wrong. I couldn't understand why he was guilty before he had the trial. Every piece of publicity that came out of Miami was he was guilty. The way they treated him initially was deplorable.

"But we just said, 'Hey, we're with you.' The good news is Helio, myself and his family never had to get the other side of the answer. So again, the final answer was exactly what we thought it would be. He was cleared on any situation and there was no issue. You have to understand that we knew Helio. We had a contract with Helio and that contract we knew was the right one and we handled it properly.

"When we first put it together we had the Greg Moore problem. We lost Greg and Helio was there and I talked to him and he said he didn't have a ride with Carl Hogan. So there were lots of moving parts. You don't get these things unless you're sitting there and reading a lot of the court documents. But I can say we were never, ever going to leave his side and it's worked out. I think the payoff today, not only for him, but for everybody on this team, it never blinked an eye."

Castroneves had a close call when his old friend Tony Kanaan crashed just before half-distance.

"I saw on the straightaway smoke from Tony's car and all of sudden either the left rear or right rear suspension broke," Helio reported. "He hit pretty hard and I saw pieces of the wing come straight to me. I told the guys to check the airbox because I thought something hit it because there was so much debris. We did stop during that yellow and we found there was a piece of carbon stuck into one of the front tires. So it was lucky. Everybody stopped and I stopped as well and we were able to go back and continue the race."

Penske said Castroneves's win was the most satisfying of his fifteen wins at Indianapolis.

"This was my most satisfying because of all the things he's been through as an individual," Penske observed. "Knowing the circumstances and just the way the attorneys have gone after his character and so forth was a great validation of who he is and what he can do. I think this was a big jury here today and the jury voted for him to win."

Penske added that he will run Will Power in a third car in some additional races this year.

"We haven't made that decision," he said. "Obviously, I want to run him in some more races. We just haven't decided which ones they will be. We will not run him at Milwaukee but we're hoping to have him back in the seat at some point this summer."

Not for the first time Penske's team is enjoying a festival of riches in driving talent. The only drivers to lead at Indianapolis this year were Penske's men Castroneves and Briscoe, and Chip Ganassi's pair, Dixon and Franchitti. The latter retains the IRL championship lead from Castroneves, Briscoe and Dixon and it's clear that this year's IndyCar title battle will be the exclusive preserve of Team Penske and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.

Plus ca change.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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