Helio Supplied Important Punchline At Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 11 2013

Helio Castroneves proved Saturday that he has the stuff to win a championship for Roger Penske. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Facetious as it was, the question struck a nerve with Helio Castroneves.

This was Friday morning at Texas Motor Speedway, where Castroneves was asked if it was time for team-owner Roger Penske to hire a couple of drivers who knew how to win IZOD IndyCar Series races.

True enough, Castroneves and Team Penske partner Will Power had gone winless during the season’s first seven races, a lifetime for the most successful organization in Indy car history. And while the question was posed totally tongue-in-cheek – a joke – it momentarily left Castroneves speechless. The affable Brazilian stared blankly at his questioner and began to walk away before remarking, “I think Roger has hired someone that can win the championship.”

Team Penske’s uncharacteristic victory drought actually had stretched to nine, including the final two races of the 2012 season, before Castroneves’ dominating performance during Saturday night’s Firestone 550 at TMS. It’s the moment that might go down as clearly separating Helio from his title rivals for the 2013 championship.

“A win, certainly, is a great feeling,” said Castroneves, who broke a tie with Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford for 12th on the all-time Indy car list with his 28th victory and first on an oval since September 2010 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. “A championship, I don’t know that yet, and I would love to have that feeling at the end of the season.”

Castroneves has come close to a title during his 11 IndyCar Series seasons, including runnerup finishes to former teammate Sam Hornish Jr. in 2002 and to Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing in ’08. Castroneves began Saturday night tied with Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport in the point race with 260. The seventh different winner in eight races this season, Helio exited Texas with a 22-point advantage over Marco, and enough bravado to fill a 10-gallon Stetson.

“We can’t stop right now, because the championship is still wide-open,” said Castroneves, whose fourth victory at TMS broke him out of a track tie with Sudden Sam.

“Don’t bring him back, Roger, please,”  Castroneves joked during his post-race news conference. “We’ve got to be consistent. But when you have opportunities _ and good opportunities like I had in St. Pete and unfortunately I miss it (runnerup to James Hinchcliffe)_ you can’t do something like that. But at this point, just got to keep moving on. Still going to celebrate a little bit, but Monday got to turn the page and focus on the next race.”

That would be the Milwakee IndyFest at The Milwaukee Mile on June 15. In 12 previous races at the historic one-mile oval in West Allis, Wis., Castroneves has three poles and a best finish of second among four top-10s. TMS runnerup Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is 27 points off the pace, won the event last year to jump-start his drive to the championship. Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan, fourth in the standings after his third-place finish at TMS, was last June’s runnerup and like Hunter-Reay is a two-time Milwaukee winner.

Meanwhile, Castroneves’ butt-kicking in Fort Worth surely will send INDYCAR officials back to the drawing board in search of a formula that will avoid “pack racing” on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval while attempting to field a competitive product.

Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 AAA Insurance Dallara/Chevrolet, led a race-high 132 of 228 laps in the 324-miler after taking the point on Lap 96. What proved to be the race’s third and final caution flag flew on Lap 113, when Oriol Servia spun his Panther/DRR entry in Turn 2. Castroneves won the sprint off pit road and led the field into Turn 1 when the race went green on Lap 122. On Lap 130, Helio’s lead over teammate Power was 1.1246-seconds. By Lap 170, the lead had ballooned to 13.5968-seconds. When a final green flag pit stop went off without a hitch on Lap 178, Castroneves was home-free, cruising to victory over Hunter-Reay by 4.6919-seconds.

Working with INDYCAR officials who reportedly reduced downforce levels from last year’s package, Firestone Racing developed a new Firehawk tire specification intentionally designed to “go off” if not properly managed through a stint. While some drivers struggled to make the tires last for a full fuel run, others ran more than 60 laps/90-plus miles without issue. Castroneves put in three full stints of 53 laps or more, but admitted the package felt “very, very different” from his cockpit.

“It was nothing like in the previous years. It was tough,” Castroneves said. “Hardly going flat. Only when I took the lead for the first time was I able to go flat. Other than that, the entire race was very, very different from the past. A lot of guys were going forwards and a lot of cars were going backwards. Because of that, it just changed and you had to be ahead of the game.”

Castroneves credited engineer Jonathan Diuguid with giving him a setup that basically put him on rails. “And you just got to trust in what your car is telling you to do,” Castroneves said.

Runnerup Hunter-Reay, however, said his No. 1 DHL Dallara/Chevy was telling him to hang on loosely. “It was a battle royale out there,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was like at times, a race against yourself, just to save the tires and keep yourself off the wall. It was just a very challenging race. I was searching around for grip, getting into a rhythm. It’s so difficult to get the package exactly right with the downforce and the tires and the degradation of the tires. As a series working toward that, I think we nailed it perfectly in the past and we’ll get it right, for sure. But it sure was a struggle in there for me.”

Kanaan said his third-place finish in the No. 11 Sunoco “Turbo” Dallara/Chevy capped a long night during which his mantra to his KV Racing Technology crew was simple: “Guys, I want more tires; give me more tires.

“I mean, Firestone has a great tire. But you can’t ask everything, for the tires to do everything. So I think it’s a combination of both. More downforce to make the tires less (of a factor). And once we decide the (aero) package, we need to go to Firestone and we’ll come back here and do a proper tire test and we try to make a decision. This car has plenty of downforce. You need to remember _ we do not want a packed race, since Dan’s accident. This is what we don’t want to have, going overboard a little bit.”

The aero package introduced at TMS last year was the result of driver concerns over pack racing in the aftermath of the wreck that killed two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season-ender at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile facility to TMS.

“Those cars are not made to run at 190 mph,” Kanaan said. “The slower you go, the worse it is. It’s extremely uncomfortable, because here, you’re along for the ride. Things that you know, if you lift (off the throttle), the car is supposed to slow down, not speed up and get closer to the wall. Or if you turn the steering wheel, the car is supposed to turn, not to go straight. And then it goes straight and all of the sudden hooks-up and then it gets loose. I mean, just horrible.”

Hunter-Reay said he, too, dealt with his car’s lack of predictability. “The car gives you a feeling and then it does something different,” Hunter-Reay said. “I liken this place to dropping into a bowl and coming back out of it. When you don’t have the downforce or the tires, it does not want to get into the corner at all, because you’re going in and the rear (wheels)…you’re coming around and when you’re leaving the banking the car does not want to come up out of the banking. Once it does, the rear just snaps loose, and I had some major ones _ corrections. I’m sure everybody did.”

As leader of the Championship Driver’s Association, Kanaan said it is his job to discuss the issue with the sanctioning body’s technical leaders. “Like Ryan said, I don’t know what happened behind me but I can tell you that I had my hands full,” Kanaan said. “So (let’s) come back and try to make a better package.”

Numbers worth noting from the Firestone 550, eighth race of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season:

1 _Win for Team Penske through the first eight races of 2013. Roger Penske’s organization had won four of its six races in 2012 at this point last season.

2 _ Points separating fourth-place Tony Kanaan (195) of KV Racing Technology and seventh-place Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing (193) in the standings.

2.15 _ Average running position of Helio Castroneves during the 228 laps of racing at TMS.

5 _ Consecutive top-five starts for E.J. Viso of Andretti Autosport.

10 _ Positions improved by Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato of A.J. Foyt Racing and Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports during the Firestone 550, most positions gained in the race.

14 _ Seasons of Indy car competition in which Helio Castroneves has won at least one race.

31 _ Indy car pole positions for Will Power of Team Penske, tying Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Sebastien Bourdais of Dragon Racing for seventh all-time.

40 _ Laps that Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing improved their position over the 228 laps of competition, most of any driver.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 11 2013
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