Top 10 Indy 500s, No. 3: Helio Castroneves joins ‘The Club’ of four-time winners
(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has selected the Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time through an esteemed panel of former drivers, broadcasters, journalists and historians. The countdown will run through the 107th Indianapolis 500.)
The 2021 Indianapolis 500 featured Helio Castroneves becoming the fourth driver to earn four victories in the 500-Mile Race at the Brickyard, and he did so in the fastest race in Indy 500 history (average speed: 190.690 mph).
Those two facts alone make this race stand out in Indy history. But this race can’t be fully explained without noting the much bigger backdrop it was set against.
Just nine months before, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indy 500 was run under previously unthinkable conditions. Its massive 235,000-seat grandstands were empty when the green flag fell on Aug. 23, 2020.
But as society began a path toward normalcy through the prevalence of vaccines introduced in early 2021, the 105th running of the race saw fans return to Indy - albeit capped at a capacity of 135,000 as part of health protocols.
And as Indy showed the world that we were coming back to life, a driver that’s proven time and again that he’s full of life emerged victorious.
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Castroneves had earned his first three Indy 500 wins (2001, 2002, 2009) as part of his long tenure with the mighty Team Penske. However, at this point, he was now driving part time for Meyer Shank Racing, a team that had been successful in sports car racing but was still building itself up in IndyCar.
No matter. Castroneves called upon his two decades of experience at the Brickyard to hang with, and then defeat, a group of talented young stars.
Castroneves’ final challenge came from one of those young stars. Driving at Indy 500 for the powerful Chip Ganassi Racing for the first time, Alex Palou, 24, passed Castroneves for the lead with five laps to go.
But Castroneves stayed in striking distance, and with two laps to go, he whipped around Palou entering Turn 1 to reclaim the lead. On the final lap, Castroneves faced a pack of lapped traffic directly ahead of him but was still able to hold off Palou and take the checkered flag.
We then saw something many of us wondered if we’d ever see again at Indy: Castroneves, out of his car, scaling the catch fence with his crew, all to a roar of the crowd that sounded unleashed.
The Indy 500 was truly back. And so was the driver they call “Spider-Man.”
NBC Sports has ranked the Top 10 Indy 500s through a panel that judged through scores of 1-20 in five categories: quality of racing, memorable moments, strength of competition, historical impact and spectacle.
Here’s a look at No. 3 on the list:
Winner: Helio Castroneves
Margin of victory: 0.4928 of a second
Lead changes: 35 among 13 drivers
Cautions: Two for 18 laps
Other contenders: Graham Rahal looked poised to be a late-race contender for the win thanks to saving fuel as part of an alternate pit strategy. But moments after he pitted from the lead on Lap 118, Rahal’s left-rear tire came loose while he was on the warmup lane, causing him to spin and crash in Turn 2. Further replays showed that the tire had not been secured to Rahal’s car before he left his pit box.
After Rahal’s crash, the tire bounced off the wall and was then hit by Conor Daly, who led 40 laps earlier in the race. Daly’s car was never the same afterward, and his own promising run faded into a 13th-place finish.
Winning move: With two laps to go, Castroneves passed Palou for the lead entering Turn 1 and then held on to win. Palou lost out that day but went on to win the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship. He became the first Spaniard to win an IndyCar title.
How the voters saw it: Nearly half of the ballots with the 2021 Indy 500 gave it a score above 90 with the highest at 99 (out of a perfect 100).
HELIO CASTRONEVES’ DRIVE FOR FIVE
Motorsports Talk’s coverage of Castroneves run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: