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Sunday May Be Castroneves’ Last Shot At Title

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 17 2017

Helio Castroneves could be taking his last laps in a Team Penske Indy car on Sunday. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The list of his Team Penske running mates to have won various Indy car drivers championships is a trivia question that cannot stump Helio Castroneves.

“(Gil) De Ferran, (Sam) Hornish Jr., (Will) Power, (Simon) Pagenaud,” said Castroneves, clicking-off the title-winning names from the solitude of a Team Penske motorhome during a recent race weekend at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

So, Helio _ ever think…why not me? “Sometime, someone’s gotta carry the torch,” said Castroneves, immediately breaking into a smile. “But you know what, I’m going to keep pushing and what’s meant to be will be. And I still have a lot of fuel to burn in my career.”

Soon enough, Castroneves’ legion of fans officially will find out where Helio will next burn his fuel. While he remains third in points and in mathematical contention for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship entering Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the inconvenient truth is the race likely will be Castroneves’ last as a fulltime series driver.

Team-owner Roger Penske announced this summer that his four-car INDYCAR operation would be trimmed to three entries beginning in 2018. That announcement marked the 42-year-old Castroneves as odd-man-out on a roster featuring rising star/championship leader Josef Newgarden, 2016 series champion Pagenaud and 2014 champ Power.

Castroneves is rumored to be headed to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship,

Helio Castroneves could be driving for Roger Penske in 2018, but not in an Indy car. (File photo courtesy of the IndyCar Series)

where Penske will launch a two-car/four driver Acura Daytona Prototype (DPi) program. Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who became a Month of May-only Penske driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, already has been confirmed to wheel one of the ARX-05 entries. JPM will be joined by Dave Cameron, a two-time/reigning WeatherTech SportsCar series champion.

Castroneves is expected to be slotted into the second ARX-05 cockpit, albeit with the open-ended guarantee of a Penske car for the Indianapolis 500 as Helio continues to pursue a record-tying fourth win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Such is the baggage Castroneves has been carting since the series’ most recent race at WGI, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen. Newgarden’s once cushy lead over four-time series champion Scott Dixon was trimmed from 31 points to three after an unforced pit road error by Josef that also left Castroneves 22 points out of the top spot.

Newgarden seemingly redeemed himself Saturday afternoon with a record-setting pole run around Sonoma Raceway’s 2.385-mile/12-turn layout to secure his first pole of the season and one bonus point. Newgarden raised his advantage over Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon to four points and to 23 over Castroneves heading into Sunday’s 85-lap/202.7-miler.

Meanwhile, all the yakking about the “distraction” surrounding his future, Castroneves said, has been little more than background noise.

“I have not been a distraction at all,” said Castroneves, the series runnerup in 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2014. “As I said before, as a group we focus on each race, and probably that’s what keeps me focused and pumped and ready. I believe I’m experienced enough to be able to separate a lot of things, a lot of rumors, a lot of noise.

“Let’s put it this way. Roger, (Penske President Tim) Cindric and I, we have an agreement. I enjoy to be part of this team and we just want to continue to focus on this last race, which is extremely important not only for myself but most important, as well, having a championship for the team. Whatever future happens, I’m ready to go. But at this point, I’m really focused on this season and this last race of the season. We are looking forward to whatever happens in the future, and I’ll be happy.

“We’re talking about it. We’re joking around. I’m happy where I’m at. I’ll be even happier with a season championship where I’m at.”

Castroneves will start fourth on a 22-car grid featuring Newgarden, Power, Pagenaud and himself in the first two rows.

“Championship is on the line,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. “We’re really looking forward to it. As I said before, it’s mixed feelings.

Helio Castroneves earned the right to hoist the Borg Warner Trophy three times. (File photo courtesy the IndyCar Series)

Obviously Newgarden with the secure lead (before The Glen) and now so close to Dixon but at the same time opened up a very good chance for me, and obviously I’m going to do everything I can to make that up.

“The good news is we do have a very good setup (for Sonoma) the past few years. We’ve been able to really show that kind of like performance. And obviously as we saw it in Watkins Glen, anything can happen. So things outside of our control, that’s something that concerns me sometimes. Some people might not be aware of what’s going on and have an opportunity to show something, and those are the things that sometimes you don’t have much control.

But hopefully at this point there is not much we can do. We’ve just got to keep bringing what we’ve been doing the whole season. We are not here because we are lucky; we are here because we were able to put ourselves in a good position and well, just keep pushing. Obviously, there are two other guys in front of us, which is Josef and Scott. Scott I know very well. Josef, last year he was very good as well so certainly he does have the experience and now he does have what I have, and it’s little more tight.”

Newgarden, who finished fourth in points with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016, replaced Montoya in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevy. The 25-year-old native of Hendersonville, Tenn., has won four races this season and took over the championship lead with a victory in the Honda Indy 200 on Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course’s 2.258-mile natural terrain layout in Lexington, Ohio, on July 30. While it took Pagenaud two seasons to give “The Captain” a championship, Newgarden is poised to do it as a Penske rookie and his sixth season overall.

“He’s been able to show his talent the entire season, and then we can see as a teammate what he has brought to the team,” Castroneves said of Newgarden. “He definitely brought a very competitive edge, which is great. At least for me, it keeps pushing me as always.

As I always say, I hope my teammates keep me light on my feet. And it’s great. It’s great to have this situation again. We have four cars in mathematical contention to win this championship, but at this point, we’ve just got to keep being focused a little bit now since we have our chance, No. 3, the group No. 3. We’re going to have to take the opportunity to strike. But we don’t forget that Team Penske still…the goal is to have this championship with Team Penske.”

Castroneves last led the point chase after finishing second to Takuma Sato of Andretti Autosport in the 101st edition of the Indianapolis 500 on May 28. Castroneves broke a three-year, 54-race winless streak on July 9, winning the Iowa Corn 300 on the high-speed, 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway oval in Newton.  It was Castroneves’ first victory since the opener of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle on June 1, 2014. It also gave the native Brazilian career win No. 30, moving him into sole possession of 12th place on the all-time victory list. Castroneves had been tied with retired Team Penske star Rick Mears, a four-time Indy 500 champ who now serves as Helio’s spotter on ovals.

Asked to list his top three Indy car career highlights, Castroneves mentioned his first win on Detroit’s Belle Isle circuit in June 2000 while competing in CART _ the race that launched his now-familiar fence-climbing celebration as “Spider-Man.”

“My first…all the Indy 500s were awesome,” said Castroneves, referring to wins in 2000, 2001 and 2009. “Yeah, and when Roger actually called me to be part of his team.” Castroneves spent the 1999 season with Hogan Racing after making his CART debut in 1998 with Bettenhausen Motorsports.

Completing his 20th consecutive season with Penske Sunday, Castroneves said the relationship is one built upon trust _ and a slew of formidable statistics. Castroneves will make his 344th career start Sunday. He has logged those 30 wins, 50 pole positions (including three this year), 93 top-three finishes, 140 top-fives, 225 top-10s, 169 races-led (including 10 this year), 6,036 laps-led (including 442 this year) and 279 races running at the finish (including 15 of 16 this year).

It’s so funny, this relationship obviously happens with a lot of my teammates before,” Castroneves said, “and I remember very definitively with Gil, with Sam Hornish, also with (Ryan) Briscoe. It’s kind of like really funny. And let me tell you, R.P. is more competitive than anybody in this team. Cindric obviously wants to beat him, and he wants to beat him and Kyle (Moyer), and I want to beat all of them, as well, too.

I get used to Roger. He gives very good information on the radio, and I have to say, it’s actually pretty good. Some people think it’s quite a lot of information, but I have to say, sometimes when you focus, that information is so useful that you don’t need to worry about looking in the mirror or things like that, and it’s very practical.

Over the years it took a little longer, it took a little time, too, to understand, but once we clicked it was really cool. He’s definitely passionate about what he does. And again, every time he always keeps you in control, coaching you well, so it’s been a phenomenal experience and I’m really looking forward to giving a championship to him.”

Along those lines, Castroneves quickly dismissed the option of jumping ship to a rival INDYCAR organization in order to retain a fulltime Verizon IndyCar Series ride.

“I don’t see myself driving for another team, to be honest,” Castroneves said. “I mean, you make your home here. But at the same time you want keep evolution, you want to keep learning, you want to keep improving. But I like to follow the steps of my hero, which is Rick Mears. Whatever he tells me I will listen careful and see what happens.

“I’m focused on what I’m thinking _ that anything can happen (in Sunday’s race). I have to. If you go into battle, you are not thinking, ‘Oh boy, a fight! I’m going to lose this fight. The guy is bigger, stronger.’ Or, you’re going to go into this fight, ‘Man, I can find a way to kick this guy’s butt.’ And that’s the way I’m approaching it. I can find ways even if they’re a little stronger or whatever else. I do have actually a better team, a better group of guys and that’s what I’m counting on.”

Along the way, Castroneves emerged as arguably Indy car’s most recognized and personable ambassador. His credits include television appearances on programs ranging from “Dancing With the Stars” to “Today” to “Ellen.” He also earned the distinction of being selected People magazine’s “Sexiest Race Car Driver.”

“Yeah, everything I did I did thinking, ‘OK…I made a choice and I say if I don’t do it, I might regret it,’^” Castroneves said. “That’s why I stay here, that’s another decision, whatever happens in the future.”

If Sunday’s race does end without that first championship, Castroneves said he will not feel haunted or humiliated or terminally ticked-off. “No. I mean, people ask me many questions,” Castroneves said. “One of the questions is that, if I’m going to miss it (a championship) on my resume, if I would have traded my three Indy 500s for one championship _ and I would say no. What I enjoy most, and probably what kept me motivated, not only is my love for the sport but it’s this _ that I know I can do it.

“How many drivers you seen who are a champion lose their momentum? And that’s what I enjoy most about it _ every time I go out I know I have a chance and I want to keep showing myself that I can do it. So again, I’m in a battle for the championship and I want to make this happen for sure.”

Answering the obligatory question of how he would like to be remembered, Castroneves quipped: “You make it sound like I’m not going to be around. Hey, listen _ a guy that loves racing, is passionate about it and enthusiastic. And if something goes bad there is a way to come back quick, you know? Roger actually says that quite a lot: ‘If you get knocked down you got to come back again _ step-up and move on.’ So, I probably want to be remembered as one of those guys.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 17 2017
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