DiZinno: Appreciating Helio, once again, for possibly the last time
In just a handful of days, Helio Castroneves may well be making his final start as a full-time driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The emotion or magnitude of that moment may not fully hit until the checkered flag falls in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
That the uncertainty of whether this will or will not be Castroneves’ last start has lingered all summer is a shame, as he stands on the precipice of finally winning his elusive first championship after 20 years of trying.
More than the stats - of which Castroneves has wracked up since 1998, and include 30 wins, 50-plus poles and include 13 top-five finishes in 17 years with Team Penske (will be 14 in 18 provided he ends top-five again this year) - is his importance and key moments he’s made for IndyCar, since arriving as a rookie with a hyphenated last name all those years ago.
Like his Brazilian countryman Tony Kanaan, Castroneves has been a rock for the championship through all its various twists and turns, ups and downs, leadership and schedule changes, and car evolution over this period.
If you think of IndyCar as a whole since the late 1990s, you think of turmoil, and regret for a lost opportunity to keep its ascendance from the perceived “glory years” of the mid-1990s going as the divisive split shattered the fan base, the ratings, the participants, the manufacturers, the sponsorship and the overall landscape of the sport.
But if you think of Castroneves in that same time period, you think of a number of magical moments that have permeated to this day.
After losing out to Kanaan for the 1997 Indy Lights crown, both made it into CART the next season. From his first couple podiums at Milwaukee in 1998 and Gateway in 1999, finishing second for the low-budget Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams, respectively, you knew there was a driver high on life, high on happiness, and high on outright potential.
That his own career could have stalled out if not for the tragic 1999 CART season finale in Fontana would have been a shame in itself. It took the loss of Greg Moore, sadly, to keep Castroneves’ career going as Moore’s replacement.
But from 2000 onwards, he and Team Penske have become as much of a natural partnership as peanut butter and jelly together on a sandwich.
And in many respects, Castroneves has served as that “jelly” to Penske’s “peanut butter.”
Whereas peanut butter isn’t often known for its flavor, it is the bedrock of this kind of sandwich - the staple, the ground level ingredient that provides the starting point for all other additions.
Castroneves, the “jelly,” has been Penske’s effervescent, colorful add-on that you can’t imagine the team without going forward, even though the day he won’t be in a Penske IndyCar full-time for good would always arrive at some point.
The peanut butter was the Penske perfect pit stops and strategy that positioned Castroneves for his first win in General Motors’ backyard in 2000, on Belle Isle Park in Detroit. The jelly was Castroneves’ spontaneous eruption leaving the car, running for the catch-fencing and launching his “Spider-Man” tradition that continues to this day after each of his 30 career wins.
The peanut butter was Penske returning to its spiritual home of Indianapolis, the track where Mr. Penske wants to win more than anywhere else, in 2001 as the first team back when the split was five years in. The jelly was Castroneves, the more emotional of Penske’s two Brazilians along with Gil de Ferran, being first to break through at the track and win that year’s Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.
The ebullient emotion continued in each of Castroneves’ wins the rest of the way, from that controversial win over Paul Tracy in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, all the way towards his most recent win at Iowa this July on the weekend when the news broke after rumors had percolated for months that he was likely destined for a Penske sports car.
And emotion permeates even when he doesn’t win, too. The crying relief he revealed in 2009 when he was cleared of tax evasion charges came through when he made his return to action for Penske at that year’s Long Beach race, and shuffled Will Power to a third car.
That restored order to the galaxy after the strange, weird emotion that it wasn’t Castroneves in Penske’s No. 3 car in St. Petersburg, while it was Power in a one-off fill-in drive.
And then there was that famous angry outburst he had at then-INDYCAR security director Charles Burns at Edmonton in 2010, when he ran towards him and grabbed him after being aggrieved at a call that didn’t go his way.
That eruption was pure Helio. No other driver - save for maybe Kanaan - could have ran after the security director, grabbed him by the chest and tried shaking him, and yet got a reaction like Helio did. Burns laughed, and we got the lasting memory to go along with it.
There was the emotion of being the right driver to win at the right time. Something felt eerily perfect about Castroneves winning the first race of the Dallara DW12 era in 2012. His stopping at Dan Wheldon Way at Turn 10 on the streets of St. Petersburg to do his fence climb there provided an endearing image that was just the right pick-me-up for a series in need of one after an offseason of turmoil, questions and despair in the wake of Wheldon’s death. That it was Castroneves winning after his own nightmare season in 2011 was excellent timing too, because in 18 years in a Penske IndyCar, that was the only year he never looked a championship contender and provided any ammunition to critics that he couldn’t hack it given the machinery.
There of course, has been the agony of all the lost championships. With four championship runner-ups in 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2014, Castroneves is your equivalent Dan Marino, Buffalo Bills or Mark Martin of IndyCar. He’ll forever be acknowledged as one of the best, but perhaps known more as the driver who never quite won a title, unless he can change that this weekend. Watching his Houston doubleheader disaster in 2013 was sickening as his sure grasp on that year’s crown slipped away.
Even now, Castroneves has not allowed emotion to get in the way - publicly, anyway - this 2017 campaign. He tipped his cap to Takuma Sato after a job well-done at Indianapolis, as Sato joined Ryan Hunter-Reay as an Andretti Autosport driver cruelly denying Castroneves win number four at the Speedway. It’s incredible to think that with three close runner-up finishes, Castroneves could well have six Indianapolis 500 victories.
He’s answered all the questions about his future with the professional aplomb and diplomacy you’d expect of a Penske driver, even if his body language has indicated an annoyance the questions even needed to be asked.
And now, he heads to Sonoma having just gone through yet another whirlwind last couple weeks.
At Gateway, he barely kept his head up after making a pit road mistake that cost him a potential win. At Watkins Glen, he bounced back in trademark “happy Helio” style with a fourth place that felt much better, the best Chevrolet on a day when Hondas dominated. And he’s now had to fly west for a Sonoma test while also working to ensure his home in Ft. Lauderdale didn’t get damaged in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
“I believe I’m experienced enough to be able to separate a lot of things, a lot of rumors, a lot of noise,” Castroneves told reporters in a pre-Sonoma teleconference.
“Let’s put it this way. But Roger, 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 for, as I said, 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.”
Tim Cindric said of Castroneves’ professionalism, “I think he’s always been a professional. He’s a guy that there’s a reason why he’s got the longest tenure with our organization and with Roger. He defines team player really at the end of the day. He’s been through some good times and some bad times. We’ve supported him. He’s supported us, vice versa. Me personally, I’ve been through a lot with him. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with.
“When you look at it, it’s always amazing, we always tell him, you know, in a lot of ways he’s still a 14-year-old kid. As he continues to grow a year older at a time, he still has the pace. He’s one of those guys that I think he gives hope to all the other drivers around him that, you know, you can still be competitive and still be there when you get into your 40s.
“Yeah, he’s always been a pleasure to work with. He wears it on his sleeves some days. But I know how focused he is on being that close to the championship. He’s been there many times. When you look at the history of how many times he’s gone into the final race with the opportunity to win a championship, he’s there again this year. It would be a no better story than Helio winning the championship this year.”
Castroneves is 22 points back of teammate Josef Newgarden in third place for this weekend’s race.
The potential exists that he finally will break through and win that first title.
The sadness is that if this is Castroneves’ last drive as a full-time IndyCar driver, he won’t have had the season-long appreciation tour to have been celebrated for what he has given to this championship.
Is there one more lasting, potentially defining memory of Castroneves, in a Penske IndyCar to come?
If there is, it will only add to his notebook of brilliance left over the last 20 years... and potentially make the decision that much harder for his bosses whether to end his IndyCar story here.