Cars starting to show some speed
Editor's note: This is the fifth installment by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who'll be writing periodically for ESPN.com throughout the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series season (as told to ESPN.com motorsports writer John Oreovicz).
It's been a few weeks since my last column here at ESPN.com and a lot has happened since then. Fortunately, the trend seems to be positive for myself and Team Penske.
Obviously Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an incredible place, bigger than anywhere else we race in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Unfortunately, this year we didn't have the magical touch we had in the past. We're still kind of surprised that our speed with the Shell/Pennzoil car was not up to par. Team Penske had the same car, the same engine, the same tires, pretty much the same setup and the same drivers as last year. So we're still trying to figure out what happened and we have to go back to the drawing board to make sure we find out why. Next year everything will be different with a new car, so we may never find out. But we want to make sure we don't have the same issues that we experienced this year at Indy.
At least we finished the race, though 17th place was my worst result at Indianapolis other than 2006, which was the only year I didn't make it all the way to the checkered flag. We were always chasing to get our lap back in this year's race and every time we tried to change our strategy, the yellow flag came out at the wrong time and we always got caught out. I'm not saying that we could have finished that much better, but we never got the chance to really go for it. I felt very disappointed and very upset, but we just have to keep moving forward and getting stronger.
It was a great race and it was unfortunate what happened to J.R. Hildebrand in the last corner. Certainly he should have had a little more coaching from his team, especially with the lead he had over Dan Wheldon. It turned out to be a very crazy result for the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, but it was a well-deserved win for owners Bryan Herta and Sam Schmidt and Wheldon. For a guy scheduled to just do one race this year, it was incredible for him.
I had a similar scenario in my rookie year at Indianapolis in 2001.
Going into Turn 1 on the last lap, I was in the lead but I had two backmarkers in front of me and my Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran was less than a second behind me.
I thought, "If I don't pass those guys, Gil will pass me." So I took a chance, but the difference between my situation and what happened to J.R. is that I made a move on the inside. That's also very risky, and I'm glad those two backmarkers were able to see that I was coming through.
They could have turned into me. But after I got through Turn 1, I knew I could bring it home no problem. It's funny, I didn't even know if I had just taken the white flag or the checkered flag because I was so focused on those guys that I didn't even look! I remember Tim Cindric saying "last lap!" on the radio, but when you're at Indianapolis, it seems like you just lose your sense of time.
After Indianapolis this year we headed to Texas, where we had the new format with two races in a row. I don't know if drawing numbers for starting positions in the second race was great for the drivers, but the fans seemed to enjoy it.
It was good for me because I drew a pretty good number for the AAA Insurance car -- sixth on the grid. But it wasn't so good for the guys that drew a number in the back. Dario Franchitti certainly didn't like that system, which is understandable because he started 28th. We have to consider all the options for the future, but for the first time, it was definitely interesting.
Texas always produces great races with a lot of crazy battling for position and side-by-side action. In the first race, we started 13th and made some great progress to move into the top six in the first three laps. We stayed there for most of the race, but we tried a big gamble by not changing tires on the last pit stop. It seems these days, if you can be out front in clean air, you can run low downforce and save the tires. Everyone else changed tires and that was a 1-2 mph difference.
It didn't work out for us, and I was just trying to bring it home at the end, which I did in 10th place. I don't think that result indicated how well we ran -- we deserved a top-five finish with the car we had.
Our sixth-place draw for the second race put us a bit ahead of the game, and this time we were able to adjust the car a little better. We stayed in the top five for the entire race and finished fourth. I can't believe it was my first top-5 of the season, but at that point, I was ready to accept anything. We needed at least a good result so we could breathe just a tiny bit and get ourselves ready for the next step. We needed to just solidify ourselves so we can start taking calculated risks, and hopefully the first win will come as soon as possible.
The second race was great for Team Penske, with three cars in the top four, and teammate Will Power got his first oval win in the Verizon car. That shows we are heading in the right direction and we earned back some respect after Indy. Even in the first race, when I finished 10th, I knew I was competitive and fighting for the top five, and it meant a lot to me to see that we were back where we belong.
Now we are heading to the Milwaukee Mile, which is a very different oval compared to Texas. There is basically no banking at all and you can drive different lines. You're also in traffic all the time and there is no way of getting clean air. It will certainly be interesting, and I know it will be a lot of fun, too.
My best result at Milwaukee was second place back in 1998, and in 1999 I got my first-ever pole position there. It's a place that I really like, even if the results may not show it. In 2007, Team Penske was dominating and I was just cruising. There's no way I wasn't going to win that race unless something very unusual happened and it did!
We had a problem on the rear wing of the car and we went from the lead into the wall. So certainly I'd like to score my first win there, and you can be sure we're going to go for it.
Helio Castroneves' book Victory Road -- The Ride of My Life is available at amazon.com and most top bookstores nationwide. Follow him on twitter at @h3lio.
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