Helio Castroneves scored a true storybook victory at Indianapolis on Sunday. The 34-year-old Brazilian led away from the final restart with just 18 laps to go and quickly built a cushion over the rest of the field as he motored home to record his third Indy 500 win and Team Penske’s record 15th triumph in the American classic. Castroneves crossed the line 1.98 seconds ahead of 2005 winner Dan Wheldon followed by Danica Patrick, Townsend Bell and Will Power.
The Brazilian thus joins Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser as three-time winners of the 500. Three drivers – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears – have won the race four times.
Castroneves was acquitted last month of federal tax evasion charges and was able to return to action at Long Beach after missing the IndyCar season-opener in St.Petersburg and after scoring his third Indy win the emotional Brazilian was barely able to contain himself.
“What a great team!” Castroneves sobbed in victory lane. “I have to thank the Lord and the whole family I have for helping me to be strong. I have to thank Roger, Tim (Cindric), all the sponsors and all my guys because they gave me my life back. I’m here today because of those guys and because of the fans. You guys kept me strong. Now’s the time to celebrate. Yeah baby!”
Castroneves had some problems on the restarts with his gearbox, which dropped him out of contention before perfect pit work by the Penske team got the Brazilian back in front.
“We were having all sorts of problems with the radio from the beginning of the race,” Helio said. “And then we had a little problem with the gearbox on the pitstops. I was getting neutral and had to change to a mechanical shift.”
Castroneves said his car handled perfectly throughout the race. “I didn’t change anything on the car at all,” he remarked. “We were just taking it easy. I knew what we needed to do and once we got in front it was to never look back. What a day!”
For much of the race Penske’s three cars were overshadowed by Chip Ganassi’s cars driven by Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, but both Franchitti and Dixon ran into trouble and weren’t in contention to win when it counted. Franchitti led 50 of the 200 laps but hit trouble in the pits when his fuel hose jammed, dropping him down the field. Team-mate Dixon led 73 laps – seven more than Castroneves – but there were problems changing a tyre on his last pitstop so that Franchitti and Dixon eventually finished sixth and seventh.
“The Target guys are fantastic normally,” Franchitti commented. “They do a great job but one mistake unfortunately is very, very costly. When you get too far back in the pack like we did it’s tough to get back to the front again.”
Added Dixon: “You lose six or seven spots and it’s just too tough when everybody is on full fuel at the end trying to go flat-out. We’re relying so much on downforce rather than mechanical grip that it’s tough to pass.”
The only drivers to lead the race were Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe who was forced to make a late-race stop for fuel so that he came home 15th. Briscoe with team-mate Castroneves for most of the race before having to make his final pitstop under the yellow prior to the race’s last restart.
Ten of the 33 starters were eliminated in accidents but the only drivers to be injured were Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos. Meira and Matos crashed together late in the race and Meira was taken to hospital with fractures to his L1 and L2 vertebra. Matos escaped with relatively minor bruises.