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Castroneves Out To Get The One That Got Away

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 28 2014

Helio Castroneves let the 2013 IndyCar championship slip away. He's determined to not let the 2014 title escape. (File photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

A lost weekend in Houston last October prevented Helio Castroneves from adding an IndyCar Series championship to an impressive racing and lifestyle resume featuring everything from three Indianapolis 500 victories to working up a dancing sweat alongside Julianne Hough.

Castroneves’ problem-plagued weekend during the inaugural Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader saw the affable Brazilian’s 49-point lead dissolve into a 25-point deficit to rival Scott Dixon, who went on to claim his third driving championship by a final 27-point margin. It was the third time Castroneves has finished as championship runnerup during a tenure with Team Penske that dates to 2000.

But as Helio glibly noted, 2013 is yesterday’s news.

“It’s very easy to turn the page on 2013,” Castroneves said during a Media Day interview at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. “I know we lost the championship at the end of the season but to be honest, I focus on the good thing, which was a very good season. We battled to the end and it wasn’t meant to be. Now we focus on 2014. We just came out of the spring training, the only official test we had. We’re really excited. We seemed to show good speed there (Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.) It was a long offseason, so I can’t wait to start it.”

A pair of practice sessions Friday officially will usher-in the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series

Helio Castroneves' title chase begins this weekend. (INDYCAR / LAT USA)

season at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Sunday’s race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary Florida street circuit is the first of a 19-event schedule highlighted by the Indianapolis 500 on May 25. Three rounds of qualifying on Saturday will set the field for Sunday’s 110-lapper, which will be televised live by ABC at 3 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network, including Sirius and XM Channels 209 and the INDYCAR 14 app for most smart phones and tablets.

Will Power, Castroneves’ Penske teammate, qualified on-pole at St. Pete last year at 105.870 mph while James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport scored his first career series victory at an average speed of 83.539 mph. Castroneves, the 2012 race-winner, was runnerup by 1.0982-seconds.

Castroneves logged his most recent, and 28th career victory, on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval during the annual Firestone 550 summertime night race in June. Castroneves scored his series-leading fourth career win at TMS after leading 132 of 228 laps. It was typical of a performance that saw Castroneves lead the driver’s point chase after 14 of 19 events, based largely upon 16 top-10 finishes. He also was the only driver running at the end of all 19 races, including a pair of uncharacteristic mechanical gremlins on the rough 1.634-mile street course around Reliant Park in Houston that doomed his title hopes against Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Entering 2014, Castroneves ranks fifth all-time in series pole positions with 38, 12th in wins with 28, fourth with 32 second-place finishes and ninth with 111 top-five results. Included are his Indy 500 victories for team-owner Roger Penske in 2001, 2002 and 2009. And of course, Helio raised his crossover celebrity profile by winning “Dancing with the Stars” opposite Hough in 2007.

While that missing driver’s championship remains the lone hole in Helio’s racing career and a talking point for critics, it’s not exactly driving him to distraction. “No, if you ask me if I would trade any Indy 500 for a championship, I would say absolutely not,” said

Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. (File photo courtesy of Team Penske)

Castroneves, who moved with Penske from Championship Auto Racing Teams sanction to INDYCAR fulltime in 2002. “In fact, I’m really looking forward to this year and a unique opportunity to win four and tie the record with an amazing group of drivers. And that’s my goal.” A.J. Foyt Jr., Al Unser and Rick Mears are the only four-time winners of the Indy 500.

But first there is St. Petersburg. A 38-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Castroneves has flourished on the St. Pete circuit, where his three wins are most in the event’s 10-year history. Castroneves also is the only multiple winner of the race.

“There are several things (reasons why),’’ said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Hitachi Dallara/Chevrolet. “The first thing is after a long offseason, we start in St. Pete, so everybody’s fresh, everybody’s ready. Second is the atmosphere. I mean, the weather is great. The fans are amazing _ over 120,000 people over the weekend. It’s become part of a big party. You put all these things together, it’s a great event.

“Plus the track is fantastic. On the technical side, it’s a street course with an airport involved. It’s not always a 90-degree corner like a typical road course has; you have high-speed corners. It’s only four hours’ drive from my home. So when the place suits you well, you tend to enjoy it much more.”

Indeed, Castroneves’ upbeat personality and passion for his craft have remained his calling card. With the retirement of four-time series/three-time Indy 500 champ Dario Franchitti due to injuries sustained at Houston, Castroneves arguably is the most marketable personality in domestic open-wheel racing.

“We do have (other) personalities out there,” said Castroneves, teamed this year with the taciturn Power and the enigmatic Juan Pablo Montoya, a former Formula One and NASCAR regular and Indy 500 champion. “When you do something that you love you do have disappointment, but you do also have the pressure moments. The way I see those pressure moments, I try to cherish most than the bad moments. I’ve been with Team Penske for many years and when you have a great team and that kind of heritage working, you push yourself to the limit.

“I really want to win as bad as anybody probably. I didn’t get that championship yet but like I said, I don’t see that as a problem because we’ve been competitive, we’ve been pushing ourselves – and I guess that kind of attitude – it pushes me. It’s always looking forward for the next (race and win). But don’t step on my toes either, you know? I can get angry…just for the moment. But I’m really hungry for this year because all three cars that we have now for the team, we want to give this championship no matter what it takes for Penske. We want to bring the championship to Roger. ”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 28 2014
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