IndyCar title quest continues for Helio Castroneves

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Helio Castroneves is once again in familiar territory, once again seeking a result that’s so far been unfamiliar to him.

The story doesn’t need to be explained anymore, at least at length: Castroneves, the man who’s won the Indianapolis 500 three times, beaten the IRS in court, and enjoys a proper degree of mainstream recognition (if more so because America loves televised ballroom dancing), is still searching for that series championship.

He’s had his chances. Several, in fact. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s getting another one on Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway (9 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra).

Despite being down 51 points going into the season-ending MAV TV 500, Castroneves can still swipe the title away from Team Penske teammate Will Power as this race, along with the other 500-mile races in IndyCar, features double points.

Like last year, though – when he entered ACS down 25 points to eventual champion Scott Dixon after a disastrous Houston doubleheader – Castroneves is not in control of his own destiny.

The last three races have made sure of that. A pre-race throttle issue relegated Castroneves to a 19th-place finish at Mid-Ohio and forced him to give up the points lead to Power.

That was followed by an 11th-place showing at Milwaukee. And then, last weekend at Sonoma, he finished 18th after being caught in a multi-car incident just two turns into the race.

If not for Power’s own mid-race spin, Castroneves’ bid for the championship may have withered like grapes on the vine in California’s wine country.

“I have to say that it’s been unusual,” he said on Wednesday. “The Mid‑Ohio race, obviously outside our control; the Milwaukee race, we’re still trying to understand why we didn’t have the performance the same as Will and Juan Pablo [Montoya]; and last weekend…Right at the start of the race, having [Sebastien] Bourdais throwing a strike right at the beginning.

“So that frustrates you, but you can’t just let those bits bite you. We’ve just got to move on, and we still have one more race, which is double points and 500 miles, so anything can happen. We’re looking for the best result.”

The best result has been what their boss, Roger Penske, has been searching for since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. brought him his last IndyCar Series championship.

Andretti Autosport (2007, 2012) and Chip Ganassi Racing (2008-2011, 2013) have since reigned at the top of North America’s premier open-wheel series.

But it would appear that on Saturday night,“The Captain” will finally claim the Astor Cup (yes, Simon Pagenaud of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports can also win the title, but only if he wins the MAV TV 500 and gets a lot of help).

The question is who’s going to give it to him: Castroneves or Power?

Castroneves obviously wants that honor. But, ever the good soldier, he understands the bigger picture.

From his perspective, Team Penske had three big goals this year: Winning the Indy 500 (natch), winning at Detroit (the race that Penske helped revive a few years ago), and winning the championship.

Castroneves was narrowly denied at Indy by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Then Power and Castroneves swept the two Detroit races. And now, it would seem that one of them is on the cusp of a title.

Two out of three certainly wouldn’t be bad in this case.

“We were able to accomplish Detroit; unfortunately, [we were] very close at the Indy 500, and the championship, we’re super close to making that happen, as well,” Castroneves said.

“…We’re so proud to be part of the organization, whether it’s myself or Will or Juan Pablo. We want to make sure we give this to Roger because he deserves it more than anybody.”

As for himself, Castroneves seems content to let the chips fall where they may. He’s long known that worrying about what he can’t control is folly.

Execution is what it’ll be about for him Saturday night, as he tries to finally end his career-long quest for a championship.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).