EDMONTON, Alberta – Prior to the start of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season Helio Castroneves was not considered a leading candidate to challenge for the series championship.
If anyone from Team Penske was going to fight it out to the very end the easy choice was Will Power. After all, Power had come close to winning the championship in 2010 and 2011 only to falter in the final race of the season which allowed Dario Franchitti of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing to claim the two of his four IndyCar Series crowns.
Castroneves could be counted on to challenge for victory at the Indianapolis 500 and maybe a few other races here and there but the suspects for the championship included familiar names such as Power, Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
But after his impressive victory in Sunday’s Edmonton Indy where he led the final 22 laps and held off a charging Takuma Sato to claim his second win of 2012 and the 27th of his career, Castroneves has laid claim that he is a legitimate threat to win the championship.
“To be honest, we were never out,” Castroneves said after moving into second-place in the IZOD IndyCar Series point standings. “We’re always in the battle for the championship since we started. Now we’re closer and we’re taking the opportunities that we run very well, to take advantage of it.
“Basically this weekend was everything playing into our favor. Since those guys battling for the championship are penalized for changing engines, going for a different spec, we decided to keep doing what we were doing. That’s why we end up being consistent and winning the race today. It was a calculated risk, all the strategy we play. But I never felt we were outside of the box of this championship. We are always there, maybe playing a little bit quiet and silent, which I like it, because many, many more years were like aggressive.
“I’m continuing to work in that low profile, and in the end of the day at Fontana, that’s the day it counts.”
Castroneves won the race in a Dallara/Chevrolet at an average speed of 101.246 miles per hour. He defeated Sato’s Dallara/Honda by 0.836 seconds in a race that had five lead changes among four drivers.
Castroneves moved into second place, leap-frogging over teammate Will Power and trails points leader Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport by 23 points.
Power isn’t surprised that Castroneves is taking a shot at the championship, even considering the rough year he had in 2011.
“Considering the year he had last year, I think people probably did (overlook him). He was a bit erratic. He’s had a few incidents. He’s had an all-around bad year,” Power said of the year Castroneves had in 2011. “If you go back a couple years, you understand he’s always a guy in contention for a championship. To me it’s not a surprise. He’s definitely worked on driving details, adopted some of what I do, and I take some of what he does. So collectively we’re faster.
“What I was impressed with this year, he actually switched to be a left-foot braker, which might have helped him actually. That’s pretty impressive because that’s hard to do.”
Power finished third in a Dallara/Chevrolet after starting 17th and Hunter-Reay finished seventh in a Dallara/Chevrolet after winning the pole but starting the race 11th. That’s because Power and Hunter-Reay both were assessed with unapproved engine changes after switching out their Chevrolet engines earlier this weekend. Hunter-Reay’s team changed prior to the weekend and Power’s team changed after Saturday’s qualifications.
It was an intense race that race flag-to-flag without a caution period for the entire 75 laps around the 13-turn, 2.224-mile temporary circuit at Edmonton’s City Centre Airport. The previous caution-free races were at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011, at Homestead in 2009 and in the Portland Champ Car Series race in 2007.
Two years ago, Castroneves thought he was the race winner but was black-flagged on the final restart when then Race Director Brian Barnhart ruled he had blocked teammate Power on the restart. Dixon went on to win that race and Castroneves was livid afterward, even grabbing IndyCar Director of Security Charles Burns by the collar.
After winning Sunday’s race, Castroneves saw Burns again as he was maintaining security in victory lane.
“It’s a different moment, I have to say,” Castroneves said. “Charles is a good friend of all of us. I was joking around, my second win here, but today it counts. Certainly with Charles there, for me also it was very good to have him there. People understand that we never, ever fought each other obviously. Look at the size of the guy. There isn’t even a chance. I was just asking him a question (in 2010).”
Power was also in victory lane with his podium finish and noted the irony that Castroneves finally got to celebrate a victory at Edmonton.
“In a way it’s funny,” Power said. “In this sport, or life in general, what goes around comes around. You generally get what you deserve. He was right there last year, almost won it. He won it this year. So, you know, when something unjust happens to you, usually something comes back to replace that or make up for it. That’s what I understand.
“It’s the same as you do something bad to someone on the track; you know something is coming for you.”
Sato, a former Formula One driver from Tokyo, scored his career-high finish in IndyCar with a second-place for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. His previous best was third at Sao Paulo, Brazil in April.
“You could argue we were a little bit disappointed, the win was just there, very close by,” Sato said. “We tried. We challenged. We attacked. You know, it didn’t come out like that. It’s okay. We take a second place, especially after the Indy 500. Indeed, we had a difficult race that we needed a good result. And today was the day.
“It was a mixed bag, to be honest. I was pleased about the result, but it was frustrating. We were challenging for the win. But it’s great, still great. The guys and boys did a great job. Rahal Letterman Lanigan team is coming back for the IndyCar Series, relatively new team. We have tons to learn, catching these guys up. I’m happy to be very there. It’s a great result.”
Graham Rahal finished fourth in a Service Central/Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. And Canada’s own Alex Tagliani had the crowd roaring when he drove his Dallara/Honda past Dario Franchitti’s Dallara/Honda for the lead going into turn one at the start of the race. The driver from Quebec would lead the first 25 laps and led twice for 49 laps in the 75-lap contest before fading to fifth place at the end.
It was Tagliani’s best finish of the season.
“I’m very, very proud of the team,” Tagliani said. “Everybody did fantastic. We had a pretty good car early in the race. It was the perfect timing to save fuel and the balance of the car was very good. When we put on the second set of tires that were a little old, I don’t think we had as much speed as the other guys and it was hurting us. You’re going to learn throughout the season, but I have nothing to say. The team was doing a great job. We’re competitive and I could not ask for more. If we keep doing it every race, then I’ll be happy.”
Franchitti was sixth in a Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda and Hunter-Reay had a frustrating day when the green-to-checkered race without a caution doomed him from using strategy to get to the front.
“The guys had a solid day today, but we just needed a yellow – we needed something… anything,” Hunter-Reay said. “To take an engine penalty on a day like today – at a track with long straights – we expected yellows. Maybe lots of them, but we just didn’t get ’em. It’s strange, with all of the marbles we have out there; you’d expect someone to go off or spin or something. I was praying for a caution and it didn’t come. Had we had a yellow, I think I could have gained spots on the restart…. But, we’ve had enough go our way this year that I’m not gonna whine about not getting a yellow. We soldiered on to seventh. It was one of those days: we had a fast car and good pit stops but couldn’t make up the ground we needed to.
“It’s going to be nail-biting until the end. It’ll be a heckuva shootout at Fontana (the season-ending race), and I’ll bet it’ll come down to a fight between three cars.”
And it’s looking more likely that one of those cars that will fight to the very end will be Castroneves, who is solidly in the mix for his first series championship.
SPEED SPORT Magazine “digital edition” now available for iPad and iPhone!
Get one year for just $12.99. Single issues (including back issues) are available for $2.99.
Click here to visit the iTunes App Store for details!