Commentary

Castroneves still the man to beat at Indy

Updated: May 21, 2009, 12:33 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves' trademark grin is back. It's a grin of happiness and relief, considering where he was just over a month ago when he was found not guilty on six counts of federal tax evasion.

Or maybe you would smile that broadly, too, if you had the kind of record Castroneves has at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

An IndyCar Series title continues to elude the 34-year-old Brazilian, and missing the season's first race at St. Petersburg, Fla., may prove to be another crippling hurdle toward that goal, but open-wheel drivers' legacies are always judged on one race, in one month.

May at Indy. The 500. Helio's time.

Castroneves will start Sunday's race (noon ET, ABC) from the pole, having won the first part of the ballyhooed month's tests. On one hand it was a remarkable feat for a man then 22 days removed from the verdict of a trial that lasted six weeks and consumed him for many months more.

On the other hand, for a driver with two previous poles and only one start outside the first two rows since 2002, it was business as usual. Even in difficult winds and on a second run that Castroneves and Team Penske took to chase the pole, the driver of the No. 3 answered.

"That was a heckuva run, to go back out there and do it again, the pressures around that, the wind blowing. It was very impressive," said Rick Mears, the four-time Indy 500 champion who now coaches Penske's drivers. "He just showed his talent around here."

None of the other 32 drivers in the field can match Castroneves' record on the 2.5-mile oval. Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon is the defending champion, and previous champions Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon also are making starts (Franchitti, the 2007 champion, will start two slots over from Castroneves on the outside of Row 1 for TCGR), but they all are onetime winners.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
AP Photo/Jeffrey M. BoanIt's been an emotional year for Helio Castroneves, right, who with his sister Katiucia, left, and attorney Allan Miller were found not guilty for conspiring to evade more than $2.3 million in U.S. income tax last month.

Castroneves' likeness appears twice on the Borg-Warner Trophy, from wins in 2001 and 2002. He was just the second rookie to win the race in a half century (Juan Pablo Montoya won for Ganassi in 2000), and is the only driver to win in his first two starts.

Castroneves hasn't won in the six races since, but has continued to be a factor. In 2003 he won his first pole -- in even windier conditions than earlier this month -- and led 58 laps in the race, only to run second to Penske teammate Gil de Ferran. He scored two more top-10s in 2004-05, then sat on the pole again in 2007 and finished third in the rain-shortened race.

Last season he started fourth and finished fourth, fighting back from an early front-wing replacement after hitting debris from Marty Roth's Lap 61 crash. Eight races, four top-5s, two wins. Earlier this month, in conjunction with the Speedway's centennial celebration, the track's Hall of Fame Museum honored the best 33 drivers at Indianapolis. Castroneves was on the list, and the only one still active.

"I said, 'You must be getting old -- they're calling you a legend and you're still driving,'" said Tim Cindric, Penske Racing president. "He said, 'Yeah, some days I just can't believe it that it's all happened.'"

As reborn as Castroneves feels in the wake of his acquittal ("Racing is the best medicine," he has said more than once this month), he may be about to embark on another Indy streak. If this is the start of a second act to a career, could he start it off the same way as Act 1, with two more Indy 500 wins?

If he did, he would match the marks of Speedway immortals A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mears. Obviously he has to get the third before talking about the fourth, but Mears doesn't hesitate to immediately list Castroneves among the greats.

"He's already stacked up as far as I'm concerned," Mears said. "Anytime you can run around this place the way he has, you've already done that. Whether the numbers are a little more or a little less or whatever doesn't come into play as much as the job you've done while you've been running.

"He's got a great feel for a car, which is one of the key factors around this place. The faster the corner and the faster the track, the less time you have to react, I've always felt like more feel gives you more warning, and learning to refine your feel to hear what the car's telling you before it happens, I think he's very good at that. That's what tends to help not make mistakes around here."

That feel hasn't gone anywhere, even as off-track circumstances consumed an entire offseason and the opening weeks of 2009. At Indy, Castroneves is still at the top of his game, and looking for reasons to keep smiling.

"If you've still got it, if you're still feeling that you're a competitor, [you] keep going," he said. "I don't want to stop; I want to keep going."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.