Helio Castroneves

Full interview: NBCSN’s Tracy with Castroneves before Toronto (VIDEO)

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In case you missed it, here’s a full cut of the interview between NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Paul Tracy and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who sits second in the 2017 standings.

Tracy and Castroneves sat down for an extended chat before Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto, as Tracy looked at how Castroneves has been able to stay as on top of his game as he has this season while at the same time facing an uncertain future in the series with Team Penske, owing to its new Acura sports car program announced last week.

Castroneves looked another potential winner in Toronto on Sunday with a dynamic pass for the lead into Turn 1 past the front row of Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, but all three were caught out by an ill-timed caution when Tony Kanaan slid into the Turn 1 tire barrier.

Toronto jumble sets stage for five-race IndyCar thriller

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In two moments Sunday afternoon on the streets of Toronto, the complexion of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship changed, and produced the next chapter for what’s to come over the final five races of the season.

An accordion effect between Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and Will Power saw Dixon and Power sustain the heaviest collision on the run down to Turn 3 on the opening lap. While Rahal emerged unscathed, Dixon and Power collided, with Power poking his nose to the outside of Dixon on the run into Turn 3. He’d be out of the race as a result.

First lap drama changed the equation in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“I went down the outside, and someone went down the inside of me,” Power told NBCSN’s Robin Miller. “It surprised me. I should have known better than to take any sort of risk on the first lap. Just not worth it.

“It really makes it tough in the championship. All the guys I’m fighting are at the front. I just feel bad for my guys. Didn’t even complete the first lap.”

Dixon’s race went belly-up, as well. He needed to pit for a flat left rear tire, then after the race restarted, received a drive-through penalty for performing more than required work in a closed pit (7.1.3.3.3.5).

It put Dixon off the boil on strategy and despite rebounding from 20th to run as high as fourth, he was left to finish in 10th. After six top-five finishes in the first seven races – his only miss that infamous 32nd in the Indianapolis 500 after his aerial accident – he’s now finished outside the top-five in four of the last five races, albeit still in the top-10 in all of them. It’s just that suddenly sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th are off, slightly, by comparison to wins and podiums wracked up by Team Penske.

“It was a rough day in the NTT Data car. I had a good start in Turn 1, and it looked like (Graham) Rahal decided to shift lanes and I had to avoid him. Then (Will) Power and I got together and ended up cutting down our tire and doing some damage to the suspension on the car. Then we had to fix the car and INDYCAR gave us a drive-through penalty, which was kind of odd. And then that kind of hosed our best efforts for the day and we ended up 10th,” Dixon said.

Pagenaud and Castroneves’ race was ruined by Kanaan caution. Photo: IndyCar

With two of the best drivers in the current generation sidelined for the day, the next key moment came when Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, nosed in at Turn 1 at Lap 23 and brought out a full-course caution.

This cost three more championship contenders, in Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, a potential podium lockout. The three fastest drivers and cars of the weekend were, like Dixon and Pagenaud in this race last year, caught out by the yellow timing by being at the front of the field. None was satisfied and Pagenaud (fifth), Castroneves (eighth) and Rahal (ninth) were all unlucky to finish lower than they probably deserved.

“We played it right but we got unlucky. But the three best cars didn’t win the race,” Rahal surmised to NBCSN. “It’s a shame. Sometimes luck plays a role in this things. You could see in the first stint, Helio, Simon and myself were taking off. Congrats to Newgarden, but we should have gained a lot of points on Dixon, Newgarden and more. The way the officials decide to close the pits these days, luck plays a factor in these things.”

All the while the one championship contender who benefited the most was Josef Newgarden – who courtesy of Team Penske president and his race strategist Tim Cindric managed to pit just before the yellow – promptly leapfrogged the field by pitting right before the yellow came out.

Newgarden admittedly got lucky but did have to bring it home from there, which he did on a banner day of closing down the gap in the championship. Newgarden was 56 back of Dixon seven days ago in the cornfields of Iowa. He’s now just 23 back of him after winning in the land of “Timbits” and poutine in Toronto on Sunday.

On the same day, Newgarden gained 21 (Pagenaud), 28 (Castroneves), 31 (Rahal) and 44 (Power) points over four other title contenders.

At 23 points back, Newgarden pinpointed the one race where he lost the most points – the double points Indianapolis 500 – as a place where his championship has been affected the most.

“The big thing for us is we can’t get into many more incidents like we have the first half of the year. I think month of May is really what killed us in the points championship,” he said. “We had a bad GP with a pit lane speed limiter issue, and a bad Indy 500 wrecking out with 20 to go, getting caught up in something. We’ve had some races that we’ve had to pick up from a deficit, and I think if those weren’t there, we’d probably be leading the championship.

“But other guys can say the same thing. They’ll say, We had races like this, too. It kind of yo-yos back and forth for everybody. Everyone is going to have good races and bad races. We have to prioritize having solid finishes from here to the end. I think if we’re the most consistent, we absolutely can win the championship. It’s going to be the guy who does that the best.”

Newgarden and the Penske team. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden’s words there about consistency provide an interesting setup to the final five races of the year, and how the championship in this year where it seems anyone can win it, consistency over this stretch will come into play.

The five races left feature one short oval (Gateway), one big oval (Pocono), and three permanent road courses (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, Sonoma). Even so, there’s been no rhyme or reason to who’s won at the earlier portion of those tracks this year.

Road courses? We’ve had Newgarden (Penske Chevrolet, Barber), Power (Penske Chevrolet, Indy GP) and Dixon (Ganassi Honda, Road America) win the three permanent road course races. One could argue Power should have won Barber and Newgarden – or any Penske member – should have won at Road America, but they didn’t after getting usurped. Alas, Team Penske has 10 top-fives out of a possible 13 top-fives in those three races, so it’s hard to bet against any of their quartet in those races.

The short oval also should feature Penske dominance – it’s been Pagenaud (Phoenix) and Castroneves (Iowa) who’ve won there this year. But, again, there’s a question mark. Gateway will be repaved before its August 26 race with a test to come next month, so while the field did test there in May, it’ll be a completely new track to everyone, and that in theory levels the playing field. Dixon is good on tracks that are new or added, and he, Castroneves and a couple others do have some past Gateway race experience from many years ago.

Pocono though? That could be – probably should be – a Honda track. Yet Power won there last year and Pagenaud crashed out. Takuma Sato, who remains on the fringe of title contention but having fallen back in the last month with four tough results, of course has the year’s biggest 500-mile win on his resume and could well spoil the Penske and Ganassi party there for Andretti Autosport.

With five races to go, it’s going to be between those seven drivers for the title, with four in more realistic contention down the stretch. Dixon (423) has to hold off the first three of the Penske quartet of Castroneves (420), Pagenaud (404) and Newgarden (400), all close. Power and Rahal (359) and Sato (351) are also close-ish, still within a 72-point margin, but right on the border of falling out.

It’s a barnburner of a finish since no one has more than two wins yet this year, but as ever, the combination of wins and consistency will deliver this year’s IndyCar title.

Early yellow bites Pagenaud, Castroneves, Rahal in Toronto

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The Honda Indy Toronto showed promise for Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, and Graham Rahal. Castroneves rocketed into the lead with a bold, three-wide move on the inside entering turn one as the race started, and he led teammate Pagenaud and Rahal through the opening stint.

All told, the three were beginning to draw away from the field as the first round of pit stops began, but a Lap 23 caution for Tony Kanaan, who overshot turn one and nosed into the tire barrier, put Castroneves, Pagenaud, and Rahal behind the eight ball.

With several drivers having stopped before the caution flew, the former lead trio restarted outside the top ten on Lap 26, with Castroneves running the highest in 14th. From there, they played catch-up as best as they could.

In the end, all three made it back into the top 10, with Pagenaud finishing fifth, Castroneves eighth, and Rahal ninth. But, all three were disappointed to miss out on chances to win.

Pagenaud masked his disappointment in acknowledging that the race win went to fellow Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden.

“We managed to fight back on the (primary black tires). The car was phenomenal. Such a shame we got caught out by the yellow. But glad we kept (the win) in the family,” he said to NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis regarding his comeback to fifth and Newgarden’s triumph.

Castroneves, too, remained upbeat post-race. “When Roger (Penske) called me to pit I was already off Turn 10 and I couldn’t come in. It’s a shame that it came out that way but at least one of our guys ended up winning the race. Our Hitachi Chevy was really strong and we keep collecting points and getting closer in the championship,” he told Beekhuis.

Rahal was somewhat more vocal in his frustration.

“I got the call after we passed pit in. Newgarden was just lucky because he was falling off the train of the three of us (Castroneves, Pagenaud and Rahal). He was 2.5 seconds behind us, or just enough to get the call. When (my team) said to me ‘Pit, pit’ I was turning into Turn 9. Obviously I can’t see what’s going on in Turn 1. We played it right today but got unlucky. The three best cars didn’t win the race or finish 1-2-3,” Rahal lamented.

Graham Rahal saw a chance to battle for a win go by the wayside after an untimely caution. Photo: IndyCar

Rahal added that he missed an opportunity to gain a lot points in the championship as well, due to a lap one crash involving Scott Dixon and Will Power.

“Obviously I’m disappointed for the Rousseau team. I’m happy for our United Rentals Turns for Troops (lap completed) program. We raised another several thousand dollars to help our veterans. But I’m frustrated because today was a day we should have easily gained a lot of points on Dixon, Newgarden and everybody else but unfortunately the way the officials have decided to close the pits these days, luck plays a huge factor and today it bit us,” he finished.

Still, all three drivers remain in championship contention. Castroneves sits in second, only three points behind Dixon, with Pagenaud 19 points out of the lead in third. Rahal sits tied for fifth with Will Power, 64 points behind Dixon.

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Castroneves pushing on amid uncertain IndyCar future

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Despite being the Verizon IndyCar Series most recent winner and only trailing championship leader Scott Dixon by eight points heading into Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto (3:00 p.m. ET, CNBC), Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves faces a very uncertain future.

With the recent confirmation of Penske’s IMSA DPi program with Acura, Castroneves’ name has been tossed around as one of its potential drivers. However, a move to IMSA would mean the 42-year-old’s career as a full-time IndyCar driver would likely come to an end.

Even though moving to sports cars is a natural progression for open wheel drivers, Castroneves’ strong form, especially in the 2017 season, indicates he still has plenty of life left in his IndyCar career.

Nonetheless, Castroneves’ future remains unknown. However, as he explained in a press conference on Saturday in Toronto, he isn’t letting it distract him.

“To be honest, if you start thinking about the future, that’s where it starts being distracting to be honest, right at this point. The only future that I’m thinking about is the race, which is Toronto, which is only one day from now,” he asserted.

While Castroneves admits he would love to be a part of the new IMSA program in any capacity, the ultimate decision on drivers for those entries, along with his driving status for 2018 and beyond, is far from finalized.

“It’s difficult to assume, and right now there is a lot of speculation for sure, and even between when we have some conversations, we’re just still on the same page,” Castroneves added.

“I mean, the team is going to make a sports car team, and we all here would love to drive. I mean, no question about it. We would like to drive whatever they have an opportunity, like you have in the past. But at the moment, there is no commitment, no official decision, and I’m just focused — in my case, I’m just focusing on doing my best for the race here and the championship.”

Along with his victory at Iowa, Castroneves has two additional podiums this year and has finished in the top ten in every race except the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished 20th following an early race crash.

Helio and his gang of guys wearing "sunshine glasses" as he called them. Also called them the 3 Musketeers!

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The discussion of his future this morning followed a funnier earlier intro period in the press conference among Castroneves and his three IndyCar teammates, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“Let me introduce here José Nuevo Jardín. That’s Josef Newgarden. We’ll just start with the new times,” Castroneves laughed.

“What can I say about the mumba power? As you can see — actually I never understood why they say Three Musketeers but they have four guys. Have you seen that movie?

“Yeah. They say Three Musketeers but they have four guys. There’s always an odd man out. Ha, ha, very funny.”

Asked who the odd man out was, Castroneves replied, “It’s pretty obvious who’s the odd man out.”

For his own future, he’ll be hoping it’s not him in IndyCar.

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IndyCar Paddock Pass: Toronto (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series’ lone race trip outside the United States, to Exhibition Place for the Honda Indy Toronto (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode as the series makes its final street course visit, and first since Detroit’s doubleheader the start of June.

Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see below.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Iowa winner Helio Castroneves, Detroit double winner Graham Rahal and past Toronto Indy Lights winner Spencer Pigot.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below: