- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Ever since Helio Castroneves was indicted on federal charges of tax evasion and conspiracy in October, the IndyCar Series' most competitive race has been the one for the accused driver's seat in Team Penske's No. 3 car.
"I think every driver out there contacted them, and I know there were a handful of drivers in the mix," said Will Power, the winner of the Helio Derby. "I feel very privileged that they chose me."
Power, a 27-year-old native of Toowoomba, Australia, was considered a long shot for the Penske ride for several reasons. He has almost zero oval racing experience going into a series in which oval tracks make up more than half the schedule. His quiet, introverted nature didn't seem to be a good fit for Penske's polished, corporate operation.
But Roger Penske and his right-hand man, Tim Cindric, liked what they saw in the taciturn Aussie -- even in Power's worst moments, like when he threw away a potential victory in his home race at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in his last IndyCar start for KV Racing.
"He knew exactly how to handle it," Cindric said, recalling Power's stoic mea culpa. "That's a big part of doing what we do. You've got to be fast, but you've got to put the days that don't work behind you.
"That showed us a little something off the racetrack that he's capable of."
Maybe Cindric and Penske were looking for someone they knew could publicly handle the disappointment of not actually driving in races for the team if Castroneves emerges scot free from his legal troubles.
Power's only guarantee is that he will handle preseason testing duties for the No. 3 team while Castroneves focuses on his trial, which is set to start March 2 in Miami.
Castroneves, who appeared at a news conference Tuesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Cindric, Power and Ryan Briscoe, said he has been advised his trial is likely to last about 20 business days. Even if he were cleared of the charges, the timing would make his participation in the April 6 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg an iffy proposition.
But Cindric made it perfectly clear that if and when Castroneves is available, he is Team Penske's man.
"It's pretty simple," Cindric said. "If Helio is ready to go at St. Pete, or he's in a situation where he's ready to go for the rest of the year, the 3 car is his.
"The easy thing to do in this situation might be to say, 'Helio, we'll talk about 2010,' and then just get on with 2009. But we didn't feel that was the right thing to do. The guy has been with us for nine years, he's done a great job, he's won a lot of races and he's great for the sport.
"We need to do everything we can to stand behind him."
For his part, Castroneves is grateful to Team Penske for what is effectively a leave of absence from his high-profile job.
"It's pretty strange to be in this situation," said Castroneves, who declined to answer specific questions about his case. "I have to say, Roger and Tim, they back me up all the way. It's pretty good to have friends like that and a good organization behind you.
"I can't wait for this thing to be over, for me to be back in the race car and do what I love most, which is racing."
It's a huge gamble for Power, who risks being little more than Penske's test and development driver for the 2009 season if Castroneves is able to participate.
On the other hand, the odds don't favor Castroneves escaping without penalty, given that his case has gone this far. That's why Penske has to have a backup plan in place in case its primary driver is out.
"The way I look at it is, we have three drivers for Team Penske in 2009," Cindric said. "We'll determine who drives which one of those two cars depending on how everything sorts out. We'll kind of take it day by day -- that's what we've been doing to this point."
Even if he never turns a wheel for Team Penske in a race, it's a valuable opportunity for Power to get a taste of how the most renowned team in Indy car racing operates. Penske's proven setups also will accelerate Power's learning curve on oval tracks.
"It's a real honor to drive for Team Penske," Power said. "When I was given this offer, I didn't give it much thought. I really wanted to go.
"I think no matter what happens, I'll come out of it a better driver."
If Castroneves is indeed sidelined, Penske will field an all-Australian lineup in the IndyCar Series, and the team leader role will fall on the shoulders of Briscoe.
The 27-year-old Sydney native is coming off an impressive run of seven consecutive top-nine finishes to end his 2008 campaign, including two wins and two other podiums.
"I've learned a lot from Helio and I can't imagine how tough it is for him," Briscoe said. "Obviously in any team, stability is good. This is life, and we've got to deal with change.
"I think Will is going to be a great asset to the team, and we'll be able to move forward."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.