Castroneves makes presence known
LEEDS, Ala. -- Coming into the 2010 Izod IndyCar Series championship, Helio Castroneves was sort of the forgotten man within Team Penske.
Now in his 11th season with Roger Penske's organization, Castroneves was somewhat fading into the woodwork. His two Australian teammates created much sexier storylines; Ryan Briscoe finished second in the IndyCar championship in 2009 and was being touted as a 2010 title contender, and Will Power came back from injury to start his first full-time campaign with the team with two consecutive race wins.
But at the end of 90 laps of the challenging Barber Motorsports Park road course on Sunday, Castroneves was the man standing on the top step of the podium. He won the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama by 0.57 second over Target Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
Castroneves' only problem on a splendid, sunny afternoon was finding a fence to climb in celebration of his 17th career IndyCar Series victory. He chose a spot on the backstretch, right in front of the densest part of the 30,000-strong crowd for the well-received new event.
"What a day!" exclaimed the ever-ebullient 34-year-old, who has scored at least one IndyCar win in each of the past 10 seasons.
The table was set for Castroneves' win when his No. 3 crew made the decision to commit to a two pit-stop strategy and stayed on track when the leaders (headed by pole winner Power) pitted during the first full-course caution of the race on Lap 13.
Marco Andretti complicated things by aggressively passing Castroneves on the ensuing restart. Andretti led a race-high 58 laps, but excessive fuel consumption forced him to pit for a splash and go with eight laps remaining.
Andretti Autosport strategist Kyle Moyer said he cost Marco the race by not putting him onto a fuel-saving strategy early enough in the race.
"I think maybe we could have stretched out each of our stints a bit longer and gained on fuel one lap at a time," Andretti confirmed. "Helio just went longer than us each time and that was the difference at the end. He was able to go that much farther and we fell short."
With just four laps to go, the yellow that Andretti would have needed to make the finish flew, leaving Castroneves to fend off Dixon on a NASCAR-style green-white-checkered finish.
"Marco did an incredible job," Castroneves said. "We decided right off the bat to try something different [than the leaders]. Marco did a great job passing me and once I was behind him I was just saving fuel. We managed to go a little further than we needed to.
"I felt I had a better car than Marco, I just couldn't pass him," Helio added. "We were just smart enough to save a lot of fuel. They were coaching me on the radio pretty well. [Team Penske president Tim] Cindric was saying 'He's got to stop, he's got to have a yellow.' We pushed him into using more fuel and it paid off."
Power, who finished fourth, lamented the decision that brought him into the pits on the 13th lap and locked him into a three-stop strategy. Power has a 32-point lead in the IndyCar championship over Castroneves, with Franchitti another 10 points back.
"The yellow came out at exactly the wrong time and it was the worst-case scenario," Power said. "It was just what I was afraid of and we got stuck in the middle of the pack behind cars that were two or three seconds a lap slower than we were.
"But it was still a great weekend for Verizon Wireless and Team Penske," he added. "I joke that when you're with Team Penske, fourth place is a bad day."
After parking on the backstretch for his trademark fence climb, Castroneves was even more exuberant than usual in his Victory Lane celebrations.
This was Helio's first win since he became a father, and infant daughter Mikaella was on hand for the proud papa to snap a winning self-portrait.
"It felt good for several reasons," Castroneves said. "I'm working with a new group of guys on my car this year and it's good to get some confidence for those guys. We miss [former chief mechanic] Rick Rinaman a lot, but it's a good opportunity for Sean Hanrahan to step in and have greater responsibility. So let's unify and continue working like that.
"The atmosphere in the team is fantastic," he continued. "Even though Will has been very fast, we are all still joking around. The man of the weekend has been Will Power; he's been very successful this season, very fast. We knew the only way to stop Power was to try something different.
"And today it worked out perfectly."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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