Commentary

Helio Castroneves rolls dice at Kentucky

Updated: September 5, 2010, 1:23 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- Indy car racing's calling card in the 200 races run under Indy Racing League sanction has been ultra-close finishes.

That certainly wasn't the case Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves picked up his second IndyCar victory of 2010 Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

While his faster rivals all pitted for fuel in the last six laps, Helio Castroneves won the Meijer Indy 300 by saving his ethanol and practically coasting to the checkered flag. His margin of victory was more than 13 seconds, or almost half a lap.

The Panther Racing duo of pole winner Ed Carpenter and former Izod IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon won "best of the rest" honors. But it was Castroneves who crossed the finish line first.

In truth, it wasn't so much Castroneves' fuel-saving technique that won him the race as it was a miscommunication among his Team Penske pit crew.

When the full field pitted under caution on the 85th lap, crew chief Sean Hanrahan believed that the right rear wheel had not been properly secured on Castroneves' No. 3 car. A precautionary stop under yellow on Lap 89 proved that wasn't the case.

Team Penske president (and Castroneves race strategist) Tim Cindric then called his driver in again on the 92nd lap to top off his fuel. That seemingly innocuous move paid off in spades as the race unfolded without an additional caution period.

Driving with an eye on his fuel display, Castroneves made it until Lap 147 before making his final green-flag pit stop. All of the other leaders came in between Laps 141 and 144.

Without another yellow, they were all forced back into the pits in the closing stages. One by one they peeled off until, finally, on the 198th lap, Castroneves was at the front of the field with a half-lap lead.

And plenty of fuel to make the flag.

"Misfortune in the pits turned out to be the key to this win," Castroneves said after his customary celebratory fence-climb. "The crew chief thought the right rear wheel wasn't on. It was just a miscommunication. We lost about 10 positions, but again, the genius of Tim Cindric came up with a great idea and said come in at the end of the yellow.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world," he added. "You gotta bet on this strategy very early, and you gotta believe it. Tonight all the chips ended up playing in our favor."

That observation wasn't lost on Carpenter, who a day earlier had claimed his first career IndyCar Series pole and was the sentimental favorite to win in the 200th event put on by the series his stepfather (and Vision Racing primary owner) Tony George created in 1996.

"I don't want to say that Helio lucked into this one, but they had a problem on pit road that kind of forced them into that strategy, and that's what won them the race," Carpenter said.

"I think Dan and I can honestly say we had the best cars in the race. But that's racing. The best car doesn't always win."

It's the greatest feeling in the world. You gotta bet on this strategy very early, and you gotta believe it. Tonight all the chips ended up playing in our favor.

-- Helio Castroneves

Wheldon led a race-high 93 laps, besting championship leader Will Power's 83 laps at the front. The two bonus points Wheldon took away from Power could be crucial as the final two races of the season play out, because by finishing fifth compared to Power's eighth, Dario Franchitti cut Power's points lead from 23 to 17.

"It was a great race, and I won't lie -- I was bummed that it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to," said Wheldon.

"You'd think we'd probably be happier, both being on the podium," Carpenter added. "But after the weekend we had, we both thought we would win the race."

Power again looked strong on a 1.5-mile oval, but the Verizon Penske driver had a scary moment late in the race where he got pushed up into the marbles while lapping Sarah Fisher and lost four positions.

"I just went straight up towards the wall and thought I was going in, but just missed it," Power said. "It took a while to gather myself up again. That was just another bad day on the ovals. It's unbelievable I've never finished better than fifth, but we're getting there.

"Fantastic job for Helio -- I'm really glad he won. We need him to keep winning if it's not us."

For Castroneves, it was a night of redemption after a somewhat challenging season. He's lost at least two races in the past when others gambled on fuel mileage and snookered him, including in 2008 at Kentucky when Helio ran out of fuel on the last lap and Scott Dixon passed him within sight of the flag.

This year, Helio had a race win taken away when he was penalized at Edmonton for blocking, something he is still sore about more than a month later.

When IndyCar Series communications chief Amy Konrath announced Saturday night's win as Castroneves' second of the season (to go along with a victory at Barber Motorsports Park in April), Helio quickly said, "Just a little correction -- it was the third win."

Turning serious, he added: "Unfortunately, the championship chances are gone for us, I believe. Now with Will, we just want to make sure we bring this championship to Team Penske. That's our goal."

Whether it gets accomplished through speed or strategy.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.

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