After several close calls, consistency could earn Helio a title

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As the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship enters its next-to-last event of the season with this weekend’s Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, a pair of numbers stand out: 17 and 55.

For 17 years, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves has chased a series championship that has become the last hole for him to fill in an otherwise tremendous career in American open-wheel racing.

This weekend in Clutch City, he can claim the elusive prize at last – if he can increase his lead in the championship to a margin of 55 points or more by the end of Sunday’s second race.

Consistency has been his calling card all season. Outside of the Texas-sized whipping he delivered back in June at Texas Motor Speedway, Castroneves hasn’t really floored us with outright speed but has delivered the steady stream of results that is required of all champions.

Call it boring if you like. It doesn’t matter. It’s effective. And that’s all that counts to Castroneves and Team Penske, which hasn’t had an IndyCar crown to celebrate since 2006 and saw their other pilot, Will Power, endure gut-wrenching defeats for the championship in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Castroneves has had his near-misses as well.

In 2002, Castroneves, Gil De Ferran and Team Penske made their way into the then-Indy Racing League, which was still an all-oval entity at the time. Coming over from CART, the mighty Penske juggernaut was expected by many to annihilate the IRL contingent.

Instead, Castroneves found himself battling Sam Hornish Jr. and Panther Racing for the ’02 crown in a scintillating duel, which ended with Hornish shocking the Brazilian for the second of his eventual three series titles.

The next year saw Castroneves take part in what would be a five-way dance for the championship between himself, Hornish, De Ferran, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan in the last race of the season.

Castroneves finished 13th that day, and ended up third in the points behind champion Dixon and teammate De Ferran (the latter ending his own superb career with the race win).

In 2006, Castroneves faced his now-teammate Hornish, Dixon and Dan Wheldon in the race for the championship. He came up two points shy of Hornish and Wheldon, who tied at the top with 475 markers (Hornish got the title on a tie-breaker).

Then in 2008, it was him and Dixon yet again for all the marbles – and once more, Castroneves lost out, this time by 16 points.

Three Indianapolis 500 victories. 22 overall wins. 34 poles. But no championship – unless you want to count Season Five of “Dancing With The Stars.”

That last part could change soon. But it’s far from a done deal for Castroneves.

He may be up 49 points on Scott Dixon going into Houston, but all it takes is one small misstep and the door’s open for Dixon to smash through – especially if he’s as unstoppable as he was during his sweep of the Toronto doubleheader in July.

But if Castroneves keeps getting the most out of his equipment as he has all year long – he’s only finished outside the Top 10 in one race so far – it won’t be long before he finally reaches the top.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.