Castroneves Chases IRL Title, Milw. Win
WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) -- Relaxed and clear-eyed, Helio Castroneves showed up at the Milwaukee Mile on Friday ready for his next big challenge -- trying to hold on to the momentum from his third Indianapolis 500 win and use it as a launching pad to his first IndyCar Series championship.
The charismatic Brazilian has ridden what he calls "a roller coaster" of emotions for the past year.
He made a late-season charge and came up just 17 points behind 2008 champion Scott Dixon, then spent six months dealing with federal tax evasion charges before being acquitted in April and diving right back into his Penske Racing car, winning Indy in his third race back with the team.
The days since last Sunday's emotional win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been filled with travel to New York, Fort Worth, Texas, and Chicago for a multitude of interviews and appearances.
But none of it has slowed Castroneves down as he prepares for Sunday's race here.
"I should have that sponsor with the little bunny that never stops," he said, grinning. "I'm still going."
He's hoping the ride carries him all the way to the series title that has eluded him in four seasons in the now-defunct CART series and the last eight full seasons in IndyCar.
Seven times over those years Castroneves has finished in the top five, including three runner-up finishes -- the last two in a row.
Coincidentally, Castroneves heads into the A.J. Foyt 225 -- the fifth of 17 races this season -- second in the standings, trailing 2007 series champion Dario Franchitti, 122-117.
But the battle up front is considerably more than a two-person show. Ryan Briscoe, Castroneves' teammate and the defending race winner, is third with 114 points, followed by Dixon with 111, 2005 series champion Tony Kanaan with 110 and fan favorite Danica Patrick with 109.
"Last year, Scott won a lot of races and got some separation and then I was able to challenge him at the end," Castroneves said. "That seems to happen a lot, somebody gets hot and wins a bunch of races. But, this year, the cars are more even, the teams are all good and I think it's going to be close like this all the way to the end."
Castroneves, who says six months of legal troubles -- facing a possible six-year sentence that would have destroyed his racing career -- have made him a new man, far more appreciative of what he has in life and in his chosen sport. It has also made the sometimes impatient driver more philosophical.
"Honestly, if (the championship) is meant to be, it will be," he said. "If it doesn't happen, I'm not going to be frustrated or upset because every time I climb into the race car I'm giving 100 percent.
"But you've got to have a chance, like I did at Indianapolis, and then maybe the door will open. That's what I'm looking for. Maybe this year will be the year for that door to be open. But, at the same time, you have to continue to have goals and today, at this particular time, talking here, that is the championship."
Nine drivers have won both the Indy 500 and the Milwaukee race in the same year, the last being Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000.
But Castroneves hasn't had much good fortune on the flat Milwaukee oval.
"I do great here in qualifying, but I haven't had much good karma in the race," said Castroneves, who has two poles and has not started worse than fifth in the last five races here, but remains winless on the suburban Milwaukee oval.
Castroneves' only top-10 finishes here have been second in 1998, in his last season in CART, and fifth last year.
"It's a different track, going from 2 1/2 miles (at Indy) to a 1-mile oval," he said. "You've got to remember that even though we don't achieve speeds of 220 miles an hour (here), like we do at Indianapolis, inside the car it feels like you're going 200 miles an hour because everything happens so fast. And you're always in traffic. It's very unpredictable."
But Castroneves does come here with a good feeling.
"We have momentum, and that is very important," he said. "We'll have two strong cars here, so we've definitely got a chance."
As for that elusive championship, Castroneves knows it's going to be another very big challenge.
"We're going to work and fight for it," he said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)