Struggling Castroneves hopes to turn corner at Richmond
What's the cure-all for a struggling Helio Castroneves? Saturday's race at Richmond International Raceway, where Helio has three top-three efforts in four races, could be just the right elixir.
RICHMOND, Va. -- There's not much more that can go wrong this month for Helio Castroneves.
In recent weeks he has been hit by a bouncing tire, he has stalled and spun coming off pit road and, with a possible win just minutes away, had a part break on his Team Penske Dallara-Honda.
Call the incidences bad luck, unfortunate, "racing deals" or whatever. Castroneves would rather call them finished -- and the way he sees it, Richmond International Raceway and Saturday night's SunTrust Indy Challenge (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET) is the perfect setting to try to end what has been a rough stretch.
"This place is what we're looking for to make things turn around. We know what we need to do," Castroneves said.
The three-quarter-mile oval has treated Castroneves kindly before, with three top-three finishes in his past four races and a win in 2005. His sixth career start at the track will come from the sixth spot, as Friday night's qualifying was rained out and set by entrant points (putting Andretti Green Racing's Dario Franchitti on the pole).
Castroneves has not lacked for good starting positions this season. In eight IndyCar Series starts he has been on the pole half the time and qualified second, third, fifth and seventh the other half. Yet the 32-year-old Brazilian has only driven to a lead-lap finish in three of the eight races, with one win at St. Petersburg.
The last time was Indianapolis, where he finished third in the 166-lap rain-shortened 500. Since then Castroneves has finished 16th at Milwaukee and Texas and eighth last week at the new Iowa Speedway, a three-week stretch of disappointment not seen from the No. 3 since early in the 2005 season when he was 20th at St. Petersburg, 11th in Japan and ninth at Indy.
At Milwaukee, Castroneves was in the lead with 24 laps remaining when a rear-wing bracket broke, dropping the wing and sending the car spinning down the frontstretch and into the wall. One week later at Texas his car was struck by a bounding tire from A.J. Foyt IV in the midst of a multi-car accident. He was running sixth at the time.
"When you have a good car and something outside your control happens, that's kind of when it feels a little bitter," said Castroneves, who has led more than 21 percent of the laps this season, second only to Dan Wheldon. "To not score the points we wanted, to not finish the race like we think we could have, that's the worst thing."
His eighth-place day at Iowa could not be completely blamed on circumstance, as he spun and stalled exiting the pits early in the race to fall off the pace, never to recover.
"You look at all the times he's driven for us, I can count on one hand the number of mistakes he's made," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Performance and Castroneves' race strategist.
"The fortunate thing is, we've been around each other enough and he's been around our team enough that a lot of things don't have to be said. There's a race like Milwaukee where we let him down, a role reversal last week at Iowa. We don't really have to talk about it much, he knows that we're going to get it right and what happened there won't happen again. He has enough confidence to know that it will be all sorted out."
All the troubles since Indianapolis have dropped him from fourth to sixth in points, from 13 to 80 points out of the lead. It's a position he hasn't experienced in a while, having never dipped below third in the standings last year in a four-win season.
"It happens. That's why you win and lose championships -- you've got to be lucky sometimes," said 2004 champion Tony Kanaan, second in points. "Not all the time does the best car win or the fastest car win races. I've got plenty of examples and if you talk to any other driver they will have 10,000 for you."
Castroneves hopes a half-season's worth is all the examples he will get this year, as he's now forced to chase his first points title from well back.
"I hate it," Castroneves said. "But, hey, if I'm in this position, let's make it happen. Let them worry about us -- that might be a good thing."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.