Castroneves is Penske’s latest close, but no cigar, driver short of IndyCar title

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For yet another year, Team Penske and one of its drivers have come up short for the IZOD IndyCar Series title. The team’s last title came in 2006, with Sam Hornish Jr.

This year the hard-luck series runner-up is Helio Castroneves. The Brazilian finishes second in the championship for the third time in his 16-year career (2002, 2008), and has completed yet another year without garnering his elusive first series crown.

Castroneves led the points for 10 consecutive races. He took the lead from Marco Andretti at Detroit Race 2, and held it through Houston Race 1 just two weeks ago. But a second catastrophic race at Houston after his first mechanical issue dropped him 25 points behind this year’s newly crowned champion Scott Dixon, a gap he was unable to overcome this evening despite his best effort.

“We did everything we could our our side to bring home this championship,” Castroneves said. “We went for it; that was our only chance, was to be aggressive and we went with it.

“I can’t take for granted this season we had. We did everything we could to avoid mechanical failure. But the one we did is what cost us the season.”

Castroneves led three times for 27 laps in Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway but had two blows to his championship charge during the race.

The first came on lap 212, when Castroneves entered a closed pit lane per instructions from team boss and race strategist Roger Penske. He’d need to restart at the back of the remaining field on lap 216.

“There was a little bit of confusion there, and he ended up calling me to ‘Pit this lap,’” Castroneves explained. “Then I was the only one, so I had to come back again. It was a blip on the radar, not an issue for the race.”

But by lap 220 he was up to second, engaged in a fight with Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver Charlie Kimball. Although there didn’t look to be any apparent contact, Castroneves sustained damage to his right front wing endplate, and needed to pit on lap 226 to replace the nosecone assembly.

“He was going for it as well,” Castroneves said. “There was a little bit of craziness in one point. One movement I think was a little too close. It damaged my front wing. Tag came really close too. In my view it was an adventure. It was fun.”

That was it for his championship chances. And with another lost year for the team in the standings, Castroneves will have to ponder what to do next, after following Will Power (2010-2012) and Ryan Briscoe (2009) in the close-but-no-cigar category since his own last best shot in 2008 – a year he also lost the title to Dixon.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.