INDIANAPOLIS — Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves will resume pursuit of a record-tying fourth victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday with what amounts a significant bonus in his back pocket, courtesy of team owner Roger Penske.
Castroneves is competing in the 102nd edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” as a one-off “ringer” on-loan from Team Penske’s first-year Acura prototype program in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The organization’s longest tenured driver at 20 years, Castroneves’ return to Indy was the carrot in a deal brokered with Penske. The Brazilian completed his fulltime open-wheel career in 2017.
The deal only covered the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Motor Speedway’s road course on May 12, and Sunday’s race. That led to speculation this might be Castroneves’ last-best-shot at joining A.J. Foyt Jr., Al Unser and Rick Mears as the Indy 500’s four-time champions.
“We had a big meeting this morning, (Penske president) Tim Cindric and I did,” said Penske, teasing Castroneves during a media event Thursday. “We wanted to know whether you’ll be available for next year’s 500? You have something on your list for then? The deal is, you win your fourth and you got an automatic guaranteed seat to go for No. 5. What do you think of that?”
Castroneves hesitated for a moment before declaring, “I’m . . . I’m available!”
Penske continued the tease by adding he might also try to talk Mears, now a team consultant, out of retirement to run for his fifth. “But seriously, I just want to let Helio know that this isn’t the last race for him,” Penske said.
Over the course of his Indy car career, Castroneves has recorded 30 wins and 50 pole positions, including one win and three poles in 2017.
Castroneves — who finished second in last year’s Indy 500 to Takuma Sato of Japan by a miniscule 0.2011-seconds — greeted the news of the rollover contract with his ever-present smile.
“Oh man, Roger is all about incentives,” said Castroneves, who turned 43 on May 10. “What can I say about him? I can only thank him again. Obviously I feel that incentive, it’s already automatic. Not that I need incentive to win No. 4. It certainly gives you the confidence to go out there and push it to the limit.
“It’s a good feel to be back. Listen, I’ve been driving IndyCar for so many years, it’s kind of like part of my DNA.”
Castroneves won the 2001 Indy 500 as an IMS rookie and repeated his fence-climbing celebration in 2002. His most recent traditional swig of milk in Victory Lane was in 2009. He will start eighth in the 33-car field after qualifying last Sunday via a four-lap/10-mile average of 227.859 mph for what will be his only oval-track race of 2018.
Will Power, one of Penske’s three fulltime drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, presented “The Captain” with the organization’s 200th open-wheel victory here on May 12. Team Penske is looking to add to its record 16 Indy 500 victories Sunday.
“We feel we have a very good car,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet. “Certainly, it is a car that can be fighting for a win. Last year we were very close. We don’t want it to be close. We want to close the deal.”
Sato passed Castroneves for the lead on Lap 195, the last of 35 changes at the point. Sato, then driving for Andretti Autosport, went on to prevail in the sixth-closest finish in Indy 500 history.
“Every time I see Takuma Sato in the pictures I’m like, ‘Oh, man!’ ” Castroneves said. “He did a phenomenal job. He drove very hard. He pushed it. The only Japanese to capture an Indy 500. We just need to do the same thing that we did. Now we just got to go out there, make it happen. “
Sunday, 12 p.m., Ch. 7
- Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti both are attempting to become the race’s fourth four-time winner. Castroneves last won in 2009, while Franchitti won his last in 2012.
- Defending champion Takuma Sato, born in Tokyo, became the first Asian driver to win the Indy 500 with his victory in 2017.