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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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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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