Castroneves hopes to put halt to AGR dominance

Updated: March 4, 2005, 5:21 PM ET
Associated Press

Helio Castroneves' fence-climbing skills got a little rusty last season.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 champion performed his scaling victory celebration only once last year. And that didn't come until the IndyCar Series season finale, when "Spiderman'' won for the first time in 19 races.

"It was hard, all season long waiting to win a race. ... It was a great relief,'' Castroneves said. "I don't want to wait that long this year.''

Castroneves won't have to if Team Penske can pick up with the momentum it built at the end of last season.

Not only did Castroneves win the finale at Texas, he finished the season with an IRL-record four straight poles. The Penske team obviously was figuring out car setups with the smaller 3-liter engines the series switched to after the Indianapolis 500, and are unchanged this year.

"It was a learning curve, and we learned a lot with that situation,'' Castroneves said.

Sam Hornish Jr. started on the front row alongside his Penske teammate twice during that last four-race stretch and rolled off from the No. 3 spot another time.

Penske had bookend wins last year, with two-time IndyCar Series champion Hornish winning his debut race with his new team -- just ahead of Castroneves -- in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But Andretti Green Racing's four-driver team dominated in between, winning eight of the other 14 races with 36 top-five finishes.

Tony Kanaan became the first driver in a major racing series to finish every lap -- 3,305 over 16 races -- and won the championship. Teammate Dan Wheldon was second. Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, the other Andretti Green drivers, were sixth and ninth.

"Well, we set the standard for sure,'' Kanaan said. "Right now, yeah, they're definitely looking at us, and they respect us. But you know, we're also looking ... we're looking for Penske, we're looking for Rahal.''

All will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) for the start of the IRL's 10th season.

Hornish has won three of the four IndyCar races on the track. The 300-mile race is where Kanaan had his worst 2004 finish -- eighth in the opener before 15 straight top fives that included three wins and six runner-up finishes.

This will be the IndyCar Series' longest season with 17 races -- including road-course events for the first time.

The league is breaking from its all-oval format in the third race this season, on a temporary road course through downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. The series also will run on road courses in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., later in the year.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store,'' Castroneves said of the chance to race on road courses again. "We're keeping the same ovals, but people enjoy road courses. It's going to be phenomenal.''

Former driving champion Michael Andretti, who co-owns the team with Kim Green, got an IRL title in just his second season as an owner.

Roger Penske won 11 national open-wheel championships over three decades before moving from CART, but the car owner goes into his fourth IndyCar season without a title. Buddy Rice finished third in points and won the Indianapolis 500 for the team owned by former driver Bobby Rahal and late night talk show host David Letterman.

There are 22 drivers on 13 teams this season.

IRL founder Tony George is even a team owner in the IndyCar Series now, having acquired the assets of Kelley Racing this offseason.

"Why? Because I believe in this series. I believe in the opportunity it represents,'' George said, explaining his reason for becoming an owner. "As the offseason wound down, it became obvious that we needed a car count.

"We were going to need to keep all that equipment that Tom had for sale in the system. There were a lot of teams looking at acquiring bits and pieces of it. But I felt that the best opportunity was to try and keep it together for someone.''

Ed Carpenter, George's 23-year-old stepson, will drive the car for Vision Racing LLC. George has promised his ownership will not influence decisions and rulings by race officials.

Scott Sharp, who drove for Kelley, has taken his Delphi sponsorship and will drive a car for Fernandez Racing. Sharp is the IndyCar Series' most experienced driver with 98 career starts and was a co-champion in the series' first season.

That team will be separate from Fernandez's team for Kosuke Matsuura, last year's top rookie.

But missing from the cockpit -- at least at the beginning of the season -- will be Adrian Fernandez, the owner-driver who defected from the Champ Car World Series to the IndyCar Series last March. Fernandez won three of the last six races, including two in a row before the finale, but he lacks sponsorship for this season.

Patrick Carpentier jumped to the IndyCar Series this season after eight years in CART, joining Red Bull Cheever Racing as a teammate to Alex Barron. Carpentier was third in CART last season.

Danica Patrick moves from the Toyota Atlantic Series to become the third woman in the IndyCar Series. She's part of Rahal Letterman's three-car team with Rice and Vitor Meira.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press