Two familiar goals the focus for Helio Castroneves in 2014

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Is it possible to be the runner-up finisher in the championship, yet be somewhat overshadowed entering the dawn of the new year?

For Team Penske’s stalwart and longtime flagship driver, Helio Castroneves, it is… kind of. Because the words “Castroneves” and “overshadowed” should rarely, if ever, be used in the same sentence to describe the ebullient Brazilian, who’s one of the faces of IndyCar.

But as it is, Penske made the signing splash to kick off IndyCar’s silly season with the recruiting of Juan Pablo Montoya to the team in September, back from NASCAR, to drive a third car. Montoya’s frequent preseason testing in his re-acclimation back to open-wheel racing has been a key headline.

Then Will Power finished 2013 on a tear, winning three of the final five races, and has participated in many of Penske and IndyCar’s offseason projects. Power, whose dry humor is finally being recognized at large, has starred in Team Penske’s “The Penske File” series of videos, and also done some work for IndyCar’s social media this winter. With his primary sponsor Verizon, there’s a lot of activation to be done with the Australian.

Castroneves has been featured this offseason as well. He’s 38 entering the year and into his 15th full-time season with Penske since joining in 2000.

Some of the familiar story lines and same goals exist entering 2014, as he has had each year for the past five.

Win that elusive fourth Indianapolis 500. And win that elusive first series championship.

“Yesterday’s news,” Castroneves joked, acutely, during IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“(For the title) I have the right line with God, to be honest, and with the Pope, too, especially with John Paul,” he said. “He said, ‘When the time comes.’”

And the time nearly came in 2013, in a season that saw Castroneves nearly reach the peak of the summit after one of the best seasons of his career.

Castroneves scored a win at Texas and was the model of consistency, with top-10 finishes in all but one of the first 16 races. He had finished every lap through that point, too.

Of course, the Houston double-header weekend was a painful one. Despite his and the team’s efforts, they came up short two weeks later at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

But Castroneves is bullish about 2014. In short, his old sparring partner from the CART days has amplified the determination within the Team Penske operation. The level of respect is mutual between Castroneves and JPM, and his new presence should push the team forward.

“I feel we’re in a different phase of our lives, there is a lot going around, and we’ve accomplished a lot in our career,” Castroneves said. “I guess you can call that mature.

“Honestly, it’s amazing to have him in our side. He’s been an incredible addition, and I mean that. He’s definitely going to be a tough competitor.

“Most of what I noticed, which I knew he would be quick adapting on the car, but most of it’s the information that he brought, that I was very surprised and happy about.  Certainly it’s going to make our cars better.”

Castroneves and Montoya are also two of the “name” drivers in the series, whose presence extends beyond the borders of the I-465 corridor (bubble) that IndyCar sometimes finds itself in.

They’re in the older guard, but they’re both iconic in American open-wheel history. Castroneves relishes the role he’ll need to play from that standpoint this year, as fellow veteran Dario Franchitti was forced to retire in the offseason due to injury.

“Dario, for me, I can’t say for others, but for me he was certainly an amazing competitor, an amazing driver first of all,” Castroneves said. “Second, my competitors, they make me better.  Not having Dario, for sure I’m not going to be as good as I was before.”

Internally, the bonding appears to be there. Castroneves said he, Montoya and Power have all worked well throughout testing and are starting to develop that key word in racing: chemistry.

“What I’m actually happy about so far, is we seem to be speaking in the same way, which is one way: win for Roger.  We want to win this title as bad as anybody else,” he said.

And about that title. It’s been since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. captured the crown, that Team Penske has won the IndyCar Series championship.

Montoya’s 1999 CART title achieved with Chip Ganassi Racing is the only combined one in the bank for the three of them.

But the odds of a Penske title are better with the third full-time car added. Castroneves certainly has the desire and the determination to go one better in 2014 – perhaps on the strength of better qualifying efforts and converting a few of those 2013 top-10s into 2014 top-fives.

Say this much, though. You’ll hear plenty from Castroneves throughout the year, and likely, he’ll be working tirelessly to be at the head of the Penske queue in 2014.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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