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Castroneves still chasing fourth Indianapolis 500 victory

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Trying to persuade Helio Castroneves to rank his three Indianapolis 500 victories is tantamount to asking an adoring mother or father to rank their children in order of affection.

Ask him what it would be like to win a record-tying fourth – at the 100th running of the iconic race Sunday and on the 50th anniversary of Penske Racing – it is impossible for Castroneves to deny: It would mean more than any other victory in an open-wheel career spanning nearly two decades.

“It’s a special number,” he said. “It’s something bigger.”

The road to immortality began in 2001, when as a rookie he weathered a lengthy rain delay and a battle with Gil de Ferran to first get his face engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy. He took a victory lap and then parked on the yard of bricks, climbing up the catch-fence with several crew members in a wild celebration.

He made the same climb the following year, when a crash just before Paul Tracy passed Castroneves on the 199th lap gave him the victory. There were protests and appeals hearings, and many still believe Tracy deserved to win the race, even though Castroneves had the victory officially upheld that July.

There was no such controversy seven years later.

Two months after he was acquitted of federal charges of tax evasion and conspiracy, he won the race from the pole position in dominant fashion, never allowing Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick to make a run.

Three victories in less than a decade.

It’s almost hard to fathom he’s been chasing No. 4 for so long.

“The good news is we’re here. We’re pushing,” said Castroneves, who will start outside on the third row Sunday. “We’re finding every inch in the track to make sure that we can make it happen.”

For all his wins, there have been just as many near-misses.

Castroneves was leading the 2003 race with about 30 laps to go when de Ferran passed him, the two of them eventually giving Team Penske another 1-2 finish. He finished third behind Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon four years later, and was fourth in 2008, when Dixon drove to victory after a late restart.

None of those was as painful as two years ago.

After a late wreck had brought out a red flag, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti joined Castroneves in a high-speed game of musical chairs. Castroneves took the lead with two laps to go as Andretti began to fade, only for Hunter-Reay to overcome him on the final lap. Castroneves made one more move, coming out of the last corner, but wound up second by 0.0600 seconds – the second-closest finish in race history.

“Listen, every time we don’t win, that’s part of the sport, but you remember it for a long time,” Castroneves said with a brave smile. “The team does not have a short memory. They always remember the success. But I remember the ones that I didn’t get. They hurt more.”

The fact that he could smile about a defeat, even if it was merely a facade, is one of the reasons he’s been so successful. The Brazilian’s effervescent personality permeates Gasoline Alley, and the perpetual optimism that he carries onto the speedway has allowed him to overcome plenty of misfortune.

“He’s got this spark when he drives. You see it sometimes,” said Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud. “He has that something special, for sure. His spirit makes him so he doesn’t give up. He believes he can.”

That personality may rub some the wrong way, but it’s also made Castroneves plenty of fans.

“He behaves like a 22-year-old. He’s such a good spirit,” Pagenaud said. “It’s inspiring.”

Castroneves is back this weekend in Roger Penske’s renowned “Yellow Submarine” car that he nearly won in two years ago, and that Rick Mears made famous in the 1980s. And if he can guide it to victory lane Sunday, he will join Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in the exclusive club of four-time winners.

That mere thought made Castroneves reminisce about his first trip to Indianapolis.

“I came here to do something, an appearance, and I came to the track but I went to the museum – that’s as far as I went,” he said. “I remember touching the trophy and said, `One day, my face will be on here.”‘

Three times and counting.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.