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Castroneves wins 500 in storybook ending

June 03, 2009
For more than a year, Indy Racing League driver Helio Castroneves faced tax evasion charges that could have sent him to prison for as much as six years. The year included a five-week trial that ended in the acquittal of the Team Penske driver. Team owner Roger Penske believed Castroneves would be exonerated of all the charges and stayed by his driver's side through the entire ordeal.

"I had so much faith that Helio hadn't done anything wrong," Penske said. "I couldn't understand why he was guilty before he had the trial. Every piece of publicity I saw that came out of Miami was that he was guilty. The way they treated him initially was deplorable. We just said, 'Hey, we're with you.' "

Castroneves thanked Penske the best way he could. First, he came out and won the pole position on the first day of qualifying. Then, on Memorial Day weekend, the driver of the No. 3 car came back to win his third Indianapolis 500 and give Penske his 140th career owner win, including his 15th at Indy.

"Roger only smiles two times, when it's his birthday and when he wins the Indy 500," an emotional Castroneves said after the race. "I'll tell you one thing, this guy has known me for a long time and they're not only my boss, but what I've been through they've really become great friends. It was just incredible."

Castroneves took the lead going into the first turn, but the race was slowed just seconds into the first lap after Marco Andretti and Mario Moraes got together in the short chute between turns one and two, bringing out an early yellow.

"I know (Andretti) hit me, OK?" Moraes said. "I was in front. I was holding my line, and he just hit me. I don't know from where."

Andretti said both drivers were to blame.

"I should have been smarter than that," he said. "That kid (Moraes) is in way over his head with where he is now. I'm sitting next to him and he just drives into me. There was no one inside of him."

Green flew again on lap 7, and Dario Franchitti immediately dove under Castroneves in turn one to take the lead. Two more cautions came later for single-car accidents involving Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal. The lead changed hands three times between Franchitti, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.

On lap 98, a more serious accident took place starting on the backstretch when Andretti Green Racing driver Tony Kanaan hit the outside wall. Kanaan's car then moved into turn three and made heavy contact, causing the back end of the car to erupt in flames. Kanaan made a hasty escape and was not injured.

"Something broke in the middle of the straight-away," Kanaan said. "Then, I went for a wild ride. I rested my head on the headrest and closed my eyes. I knew it was going to be a big one. I'm pretty much beat up."

Castroneves wasn't that far behind, diving under Kanaan's burning car near the wall.

"All of a sudden, the suspension broke and he hit pretty hard," Castroneves said. "I saw a piece of the wing come straight to me. I told the guys to check the gear box because there was so much debris. We found out there was a piece of carbon in the right front. It was lucky that everybody stopped and we were able to go back and continue the race."

All the cars went to the pits except for the bright pink car of Alex Lloyd. Vitor Miera had a scare when fuel spilled all over his car and ignited. Miera stayed in the car while his team put the fire out, and then continued on in the race to everyone's amazement.

When the green flew again on lap 167, Castroneves was back in front followed by teammate Briscoe. The scariest incident of the race and the most serious came just seven laps later as Miera and Raphael Matos touched wheels in turn one, causing both cars to slam into the turn-one wall. Miera suddenly found himself riding the safety barrier on his side all the way through the turn, finally falling off in the short chute. Miera suffered two broken vertebrae in his back and could be out for four months.

"I hope Vitor is OK," Matos said after being cleared at the infield medical center. "It was just an unfortunate incident. It's disappointing and frustrating."

As green flew again with 17 laps remaining, Castroneves was in front with Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick in a side-by-side battle for second. Castroneves continued to pull away, building a lead of more than two seconds with two laps remaining. When the checkered flag came out, it was a third 500 win for Castroneves with Wheldon holding off Patrick for second place. Townsend Bell was fourth, and Will Power finished fifth.

"Normally, I scream when the guys celebrate, but I just had no words," Castroneves said. "I was just, 'Let it go.' It was a very special moment."

The Penske driver joined an elite group of just nine drivers to win three or more times.

"I feel honored to be in this category of drivers," he said. "When I go to the dinner for the old-timers, I feel honored just to be there. Now, being in this type of category, oh, wow, with such incredible names, I just feel blessed. Without the team and the good people that surround you, you cannot make that. Team Penske has won so many times."

"To see him come back, outside he's got that personality," Penske said. "He climbs the fence (as he does following every Indy 500 victory), but inside he's as tough as nails. He had to be to go through what he's been through the last six months. It's really a credit to the team."

Wheldon said despite the second-place finish, it was a near-perfect race for his team. He said he had nothing for Castroneves' 220-mph finishing laps.

"In my Indy Car career, there's not many races where I've left the track actually feeling we executed everything perfectly," Wheldon said. "I thought we did an absolute job. The pit stops were just first class. I didn't have to do too much work on track because they kept giving me spots up. It was one of those things where I didn't have enough for Helio towards the end, having to hold off Danica."

"It seemed like Dan was a little more trimmed out really, because we just ran side-by-side all the way down into one, and I thought I was going to pass him completely on the outside," Patrick, who had her best 500 finish, said. "That did not happen."

Patrick was a little upset with Paul Tracy who made several pass attempts throughout the day on the outside of turn one.

"It's not a two-lane track really," she said. "Paul Tracy makes it a two-lane track. I have seen him on many restarts at the beginning.

"He was going outside on a lot of cars. He did it to me, and I went into one side-by-side and side-by-side through two. He was hanging it out there."

Penske put in perspective about his feelings of Castroneves and what the month of May had brought to the entire Penske family.

"He's a part of our family," Penske said. "You're just so happy to see these guys execute like they have.

"Indianapolis, what it's done for our company, our 40,000 people, and our customers and my family. Building a brand, you can never do it unless you surround yourself with the Indianapolis 500. For me, it's spinning in my head; it's what people expect."

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