Castroneves Acquitted, Will Race This Weekend
By Jonathan Ingram| Senior Correspondent
With a jury in Miami returning a not guilty verdict for Castroneves early on Friday, team owner Roger Penske expressed his continuing confidence in Power by giving him a ride at the Indy 500 alongside Castroneves and Ryan Biscoe. At Long Beach, Power will switch to the No. 12 entry of Penske Racing to make room for Castroneves, who will begin practice Saturday in the No. 3 car.
“Penske Racing is very happy for Helio and his family,” said Penske in a prepared statement. “Penske Racing thanks Will Power for his hard work in helping the team prepare and begin the 2009 IndyCar Series season,” continued Penske.
Given the logistics of getting Castroneves into a third car virtually overnight, it was clear that Penske is prepared to maintain Castroneves as the team leader. But the ride at Indy for Power, relatively unproven on ovals, was a major vote of confidence by the team owner.
A proven street racer, Power was the perfect choice to step in for team owner Penske. Coming into this weekend’s Long Beach race, he was among the favorites after winning on these seaside streets last year in the final Champ Car race. But first he’ll have to beat teammate Ryan Briscoe and now Castroneves.
Briscoe has won two street races in a row, starting with the non-points last year at Surfer’s Paradise and this year’s season opener at St. Petersburg. So if it’s possible for one team to have two favorites headed into a race, Penske has pulled that off with the addition of veteran Castroneves, who won from the pole for Penkse Racing in his last appearance in 2001.
“It’s certainly been tough not having Helio,” said Briscoe, “but no matter who my teammate was going into this year, my approach was the same. I wanted to come in carrying off the experience I gained last year and try to kick the season off gaining points and trying to go for this championship.”
A year ago, Briscoe was a newcomer. Instead of thoughts of developing a portfolio as team leader, the Aussie was intent on resurrecting a career in open-wheel racing that almost ended with his horrendous, fiery accident in Turn 3 of the Chicagoland oval in 2005. Prior to that crash in a Chip Ganassi-owned IRL entry, the kid from Sydney was trying to rebuild his reputation as a teen sensation after Toyota showed him the gate as a test driver for its Formula One team.
Briscoe’s comeback began aboard Penske Racing’s Porsche Spyder in 2007 in the American Le Mans Series. He co-drove to two victories and set five fastest race laps before moving into the IRL program last season. Now he’s a veteran.
“I do feel as though I’ve probably taken on slightly more of a leadership role with Team Penske with Will coming on board,” said Briscoe, “just letting him feel comfortable and showing him the ropes.”
Power certainly gained some respect for his fellow Aussie at Surfer’s last October. Power set a scintiallating pace to win the pole and was leading handily when Briscoe began to pressure him. “The team was telling me to save fuel,” said Power, who changed his shifting pattern, lost a bit of rhythm and then hit the barriers on the ocean-side chicane. Briscoe went on to win, but graciously acknowledged Power to have been the class of the field.
Power’s pole at Surfer’s in an IRL Dallara was his second straight on the course, the first having come in Champ Car’s Panoz-built DP01. He’ll have to make the same transition this year at Long Beach.
“I’ve always found Long Beach to be quite a tough track to get a good balance on because of the variance in corners and track surfaces,” said Power, a native of Toowoomba just outside of Brisbane. “I’m not sure how much of the Champ Car setup will carry over to IndyCar.”
At Surfer’s, the IRL’s Dallara in the hands of Power was four seconds slower than the Aussie driver’s pole in the DP01 at the Champ Car race a year earlier. So the pole time at Long Beach, which is shorter than the Australian street course, is expected to be three to four seconds slower than last year’s Champ Car finale.
Power often as not has been in the wrong place at the right time, including the awkward situation created by Castroneves’s overnight return. “I’m very happy for Helio,” said Power, who only learned of his ride at Indy on Thursday night from Penske Racing President Tim Cindric. “I can’t imagine what he and his family have been going through.”
Power’s victory in the historic finale to Long Beach’s Champ Car era was overshadowed by Danica Patrick’s first IRL victory at Motegi in Japan. Completed 14 hours before the green fell in California, Patrick’s victory revived Danica mania. The IRL’s public relations effort has featured Patrick this weekend.
Power fell into the lap of Penske Racing when Surfer’s Paradise dropped off the IndyCar schedule. Penske was looking for at least a short term replacement for veteran driver Castroneves and perhaps longterm if needed. He found one when Power’s patron Craig Gore elected to disband Team Australia for 2009 after being one of the Champ Car team owners to continue following reunification in 2008. Gore, who partnered with Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser to field an entry for Power, decided to quit when a round Down Under disappeared from the IRL’s unified schedule.
A three-time winner in Champ Cars, including on the streets of Toronto, Power has ended up with a career break with the return of Castroneves. Briscoe knows what it’s like to have talent and need to travel.
“Will is doing a great job,” said Briscoe. “He’s a great asset to the team, and he’s extremely fast. I think we’re going to see big things from him.”