DiZinno: The ‘Great Corn Helio’: Iowa win proves Castroneves still has it

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It was always a question of when the rumor would enter print, and it happened this weekend in the corn fields of Iowa.

For a couple months, it’s percolated under the surface and then has come to a more substantial boil: Team Penske is working towards bringing back a sports car program, but neither the team nor the associated manufacturers will say officially that it’s happening, yet.

And the rumor was that along with Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves might also be in the frame for one of those full-time sports car seats if (when) the team debuts for a full season in 2018.

The shift from open-wheel racing to sports cars is as common a ritual in racing as the hopeless but naive young driver posting a hopeful mid-December tweet they are actually close to making a deal happen, and a manufacturer complaining just before a major endurance race they don’t have the right Balance of Performance.

But the aforementioned shift doesn’t – or wouldn’t – usually happen when a guy is still at the top of his field in open-wheel racing, contending for a championship on an annual basis, and winning races.

This is the dilemma and potential crossroads Helio Castroneves may be finding himself at in mid-year 2017, after Juan Pablo Montoya was in a near identical position last year.

Both RACER and Autoweek reported over the weekend that the potential – or greater likelihood – exists that this will be Castroneves’ final full-time campaign in IndyCar. And certainly, if he wasn’t performing at the level he is now, and has been for the better part of his career, that rumor of a shift would be fully justified.

However here’s the thing: Nothing is done in racing until the press release hits your inbox, the i’s are dotted, t’s crossed, and shirts starched.

And a driver of Castroneves’ caliber, legacy, and character within IndyCar racing has, after 20 years, fully earned the right to call time on his IndyCar career on his terms, and his terms only.

Roger Penske has, after everything, shown nothing but unwavering support to the Florida-based Brazilian, who’s repaid him over the entirety of his career.

Save for his incident-laden 2011 season and his much-publicized tax issues end of 2008, Castroneves has never looked anything other than a potential champion-in-waiting – the age old story, of course, being that the full-season championship is the one thing missing from his otherwise sterling career resume.

In his 17 seasons with Team Penske prior to 2017, Castroneves has 13 top-five points finishes, and is well on his way to his 14th in 18 this year. The only four seasons he didn’t, he was sixth twice (2005, 2007), seventh in his first season (2000) in a year when he won three races, the most in the CART season, and then 11th in that winless, 2011 outlier.

His win today in Iowa ended Castroneves’ three-plus year winless drought, but it wasn’t as if this was a fluke. This was just the day when everything finally came together for him after three-plus years of races where wins often went away from him through no fault of his own.

Since that Detroit race two win in 2014, Castroneves banked eight runner-up finishes and five third places. He’s won 12 poles since that point too.

He had that runner-up finish at the Indianapolis 500 this year following a drive where he was running essentially a car in qualifying trim, with reduced downforce on his right rear wheel guard, and in a car down on power compared to Takuma Sato’s winning Honda… and still almost pulled it off.

So, this one was coming. Today in Iowa was just a day where it all went perfectly, finally.

“Finally everything came together,” Castroneves reflected in the post-race press conference. “Yeah, I appreciate more, but when I say like for the first time, it’s just like I remember this feeling before, and I didn’t think that climbing the fence would get a little bit harder this time.

“But it still had the same feeling looking at everybody’s face through the fence and everybody is excited for me. That’s a feeling that nobody can take away from you, and that’s what motivates me more to come back now and do what I just did.”

Castroneves led 217 laps and then used veteran racecraft to get past the talented but unlucky JR Hildebrand, who was in search of his first win, but got balked by traffic.

“Everything was always well-calculated. Today experience really paid off,” he explained. “I’m aggressive when I have to be, and I take it easy when I need to. I don’t know, but probably that’s one of the reasons we led today.”

While Team Penske has had a number of champions – Will Power and Simon Pagenaud exist within his current quartet, Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. won more in the 2000s and Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi carried the team in the 1990s – Castroneves has reached icon status within the Penske mold in the vain of a Rick Mears. Castroneves and Mears have delivered Penske nearly half his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories, with seven combined between the two of them.

Very few drivers last 20 years in IndyCar and that’s even harder to achieve within the Penske mold; but this is Castroneves’ 18th season with “The Captain.” Mears retired in 1992 as a driver but has been Penske’s veteran driver sage/coach in the 25 years since, having long been Castroneves’ spotter.

Today, Castroneves scored his 30th career win, which put him one ahead of Mears.

“And 30 wins, we just passed Rick Mears, which is my hero, and getting close to win most of the team, which is great,” he said.

What Castroneves means to Penske is what Castroneves means to IndyCar: It’s hard to think of either entity without them.

It was a weird Sunday in St. Petersburg, 2009, when a then-lesser heralded Power made his Team Penske debut as a temporary fill-in driver for Castroneves in his usual No. 3 car. A race later at Long Beach, Castroneves had been cleared of tax evasion charges, was back in the No. 3 car, and Power shifted to a third car, the then-part-time No. 12 Verizon entry.

There’s been a lot of celebrating Castroneves and his longtime friend Tony Kanaan’s equal 20th seasons in IndyCar this year, but at no point has either campaign been hailed as a retirement tour or final act.

Ask Kanaan, who remains one of the fittest drivers in the series, about his future and he’ll say he wants – and plans – to keep driving in IndyCar for as long as he can, and as long as Chip Ganassi will let him.

And Castroneves? As recently as last year he’s told some in the media he wants to keep at this for several more seasons.

If his performance continues to match that desire, and so far, it has, then there’s no reason he should be making that transition that so many drivers do. Save for Pagenaud, now one of Castroneves’ teammates, you almost never come back to IndyCar once you’ve entered the sports car world on a full-time basis.

IndyCar hasn’t had a full-time season without either of them since 1997; for reference, that’s a year when the first Austin Powers movie premiered and Beavis and Butt-head concluded its seventh season before a 13-year hiatus and 2011 reboot.

Today was a reminder in winning form of just how good, today, the “Great Corn Helio” still is.

“I have to say I’m honored to be part of this organization, and I can only thank Roger, Cindric and the entire team to be supporting me,” he said.

“It’s easy to be behind you in good times, but they’ve always been there no matter the time, so for me that’s priceless. I’m going to continue focusing in this season, and there’s more to come.”

Robert Wickens views iRacing debut as major milestone in recovery efforts

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This Saturday afternoon will mark an important milestone in the recovery efforts of Robert Wickens.

For the first time since the summer of 2018, the popular Canadian will race against his fellow NTT IndyCar Series competitors – virtually at least – in the second race of the INDYCAR’s iRacing Challenge at virtual Barber Motorsports Park.

Wickens’ entry in the virtual race is another positive step in his recovery efforts after he sustained a spinal cord injury in an Aug. 19, 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway.

“I’m just excited to drive something,” Wickens said in a Friday teleconference. “Last night was the first time I’ve driven any form of race car since the accident at Pocono. Even though it’s virtual, it still felt pretty good.”

While Wickens is excited to make his first iRacing start, his debut was delayed by a week because he wanted to make sure he had the proper equipment before getting started.

“Simulation was always step number one for me. But unfortunately, through one reason or another, it was very challenging to basically do it right,” Wickens said. “I didn’t want to purchase an Amazon setup and try to learn on that. I wanted to build a good foundation that you can evolve from because I see this as a great training tool for me to make my hand control second nature.”

Wickens withdrew from last week’s event after not receiving the equipment he needed in time. A group of members from the motorsport community headed by Max Papis attempted to overnight Wickens all the necessary equipment, but unfortunately, the package did not arrive at his home until Thursday. He will use a wheel provided by McLaren this weekend.

Regardless, Wickens appreciates the efforts made by Papis and others.

“I think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but the fact that I have so many people supporting me on my return to this is amazing,” Wickens said. “When Max found out that I was in the market for a steering wheel, he jumped on and just got to work. He actually had already been doing stuff in the background that I wasn’t even aware of. He already had the hardware in his shop. I guess he was just waiting for me to reach out.

“He’s such a good guy. He’s a competitor at heart and although he’s retired from the cockpit, I think he sees his entrepreneurship as a new form of competition. He wants to be the best in the industry and he works hard, and I think he’s doing a great job.”

Wickens admits that with such little time to practice and a temporary wheel, he has a steep learning curve ahead of him. Nonetheless, he views iRacing as an important part of his recovery efforts.

“I always knew that through simulation was going to be the best way to try all the different handbrake configurations or paddle configurations so this is really just step one of 100 to get me back into the NTT IndyCar Series,” Wickens said. 

Some of Wicken’s fellow IndyCar competitors are also happy he will compete in this weekend’s race.

“It’s been great watching his progress,” said Will Power. “I think that like he said, his first step was to get back into a sim. It’s pretty cool that he’s actually able to get on and compete in a competition.”

Graham Rahal is another driver who is excited to race against Wickens again. Both drivers have been competing against each other since go-karts.

“To see his determination, to see his recovery process, to see his mentality and the way he’s thought through this is admirable but is not surprising from him if you’ve known him for a long time,” Rahal said. “I can tell you from going to see him in the hospital pretty early on after the accident that the destination was always there. He’s a guy who just from day one was committed to getting back on his feet and to getting back in a race car. It’s great to have him out here competing with us.”

Coverage of race two of the inaugural INDYCAR iRacing Challenge from virtual Barber Motorsports Park airs live Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994