- John Schwarb
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves is hard enough to beat at the Brickyard. He's got two Indianapolis 500 wins and three other top-5 finishes and drives for an owner who has "1 Indy 14" license plates and lives to change them to "1 Indy 15."
But now? Riding this cloud of good fortune?
On April 17 he beat a federal tax evasion rap in his hometown of Miami, avoiding a possible prison sentence and tarnishing a legacy of on-track success and off-track adoration. Twenty-two days later he won the pole position for the 93rd installment of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
He may never stop smiling.
"Are you kidding, man? It's just incredible," Castroneves said. "I was just wishing that I would be here."
Oh, Castroneves is here, and has a great chance at furthering his own legacy with a third likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy, which would give Roger Penske a 15th win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His No. 3 Dallara-Honda posted a four-lap qualifying speed of 224.864, nearly a full mph better than his first attempt taken within the first hour of the six-hour qualifying session. Drivers throughout the day battled difficult windy conditions on the flat track, and several drivers who posted early qualifying attempts came back out to try to better their positions.
Castroneves' first attempt settled into the outside of Row 1, as teammate Ryan Briscoe and Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti posted quicker efforts. Castroneves made a second attempt in the fifth hour of qualifying, posted his faster time and didn't need a third try during the busy final hour.
Briscoe took a shot at knocking off Castroneves, but a 224.083 mph attempt wasn't nearly enough for the pole but did give him the second spot, Team Penske's seventh such feat at Indy.
"I could see in his face he was a little upset," Castroneves said of Briscoe. "You want to be the No. 1, it doesn't matter who it is. Unfortunately, what I'm going to have, he's going to have. One day it's going to be my turn, one day it's going to be his turn."
Not Saturday. The Brazilian continued to build on momentum since (and from) his trial, as he has quickly gotten up to speed in the IndyCar Series. He finished a rather remarkable seventh at Long Beach, Calif., having flown overnight from Florida after his not guilty verdict was read, then took second place one week later on the 1.5-mile oval at Kansas. Heck, he's 10th in series points despite missing the season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I saw him at Long Beach and said, 'It's good to see you, but I know you're going to be a huge pain in my butt the whole year,' and it's proven to be true," said Franchitti, who will start the 500 on the outside of Row 1. "He's had a helluva time, a very difficult time. It's all turned around for him. It looks like he's having the time of his life."
Castroneves and his sister, Kati, still have one outstanding conspiracy charge to be resolved from the tax evasion trial, but he has left that in lawyers' hands and turned his full focus to racing.
For the three-week-long Indy 500, he arrived with bags fully packed, not intending to return home for rest as in years past. This month lent itself to even better opportunities to get away with a recession-induced reduction in practice sessions at the Speedway, but still -- he had spent enough time in South Florida already, with many sleepless nights.
"My intention was to stay here all the time," Castroneves said. "My perspective changed so much. There was a point in my life in the moments, tough moments that I didn't even know that I would be here. Unfortunately it was out of my control, then all of a sudden I have this opportunity now. I will do what I love."
That could include moving up in the 500 record books. In two weeks he'll try to put his name alongside Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser as three-time champions. He's the eighth driver with three poles at Indy.
"We're excited, and I think to have Helio after his time off to come back and show everybody how good he really is, it was a thrill for me and obviously for him and all the people who stood behind him over the last five or six months," Penske said.
The thrills may not be over. Castroneves is tough enough here in an average year.
This is already an extraordinary year.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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