Castroneves sees title slip from grasp

Updated: September 11, 2006, 9:59 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- Helio Castroneves knew one point wasn't much of a cushion. He knew he needed to drive fast and up front if he wanted to claim his first-ever IndyCar Racing title.

More than anything else, Castroneves knew that the only three other racers left vying for the title, Sam Hornish Jr., Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon, would be racing at the front of the pack.

What he didn't realize was that it would be two other drivers and a computer that he all-but-called questionable, that would most impact his ultimately failed title bid.

"That's what happens when there's just a one-point lead," he said. "You have to take chances, but at the end of the day, [it wasn't there]."

Castroneves finished fourth in the race, but he fell just one spot shy of winning the title. Ganassi teammates Wheldon and Dixon did everything they could by finishing first and second, but because they started the race third and fourth in points, they couldn't win the title if Penske teammates Hornish and Castroneves finished third and fourth. With those two teams dominating IndyCar this season, it was hardly surprising that the end of the race came down to those four.

For Wheldon and Dixon, the battle up front was for the race victory. The real battle was just behind them, where Castroneves could have have won the title had he had beaten Hornish for third in the race. Instead, he finished more than two seconds behind the 2006 title winner.

"We tried everything we could," Castroneves said, but the two-time Indy 500 winner said it was a lap-down car that spelled his ultimate doom.

Castroneves said that early in the race, Tony Kanaan refused to let him pass, even though both drivers knew Castroneves had the faster car. Castroneves would eventually clear Kanaan in the early going. But when the two ran together as the closing laps wound down, Kanaan's dogged determination to hold his spot slammed the nail in the coffin of Castroneves' title hopes.

"There was one guy that was really making it very hard and, unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it," Castroneves said. "It was really frustrating to see somebody not in the chase of the championship screw somebody else. Just frustrating … but, you know, it's a race and next year we'll have more fun."

"He certainly lost his momentum," Penske Racing President Tim Cindric said. "I'm sure that might put a little strain on their perceived friendship, but it's racing. I'm sure he'll put it behind him."

Even after the incident with Kanaan had put him nearly two seconds behind the lead pack, Castroneves held onto a glimmer of hope. But as he tried to make up ground, he made contact with Ed Carpenter and, for a second, thought his day would end prematurely.

"We tried to be safe, but unfortunately we got touched, again by a lap-down car," he said. "It wasn't much, but enough to make the end of the day [bad]. … We were very lucky to not have a huge accident."

If not for the late-race troubles, Castroneves said he "absolutely" could have found his way to Hornish's tail and managed past. But there was a lack of shock in his voice as he spoke about the title slipping away. In a way, he had prepared for the late-race struggles early on -- first when he originally encountered problems with Kanaan and second when he got hit with a pit-road speeding penalty. Both conspired to put him a lap down.

"I still don't understand about the speed-limit violation," Castroneves said. "I still don't think it was me, it was a lot of computer -- a lot of things that can say at that point it was me. But if I was penalized, then I'm sure a lot of others should [have been] as well because I was following with a lot of people."

Fortunately, the pit penalty and the lost lap didn't completely ruin his day. A yellow flag thrown on lap 150 put Castroneves back on the lead lap and set him up for one last shot at grabbing his first title. It was a brief shot, one too fragile to withstand getting held up by another driver and the late-race contact with Carpenter.

"It was something out there," he said. "It was a great race. Unfortunately, for me, it just wasn't [to be]."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rupenisracin@yahoo.com.

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