Helio Castroneves eagerly gearing up for IndyCar season debut


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves monitored the first four IndyCar races of the season from afar.

He learned to cope with the emotions of competing outside the series, being away from longtime friends and surrounded by his biggest fans. The itch to be out there, competing, never waned, though.

On Friday, the beloved Brazilian will get the best belated birthday gift he could: Returning to the track as he prepares to make his season debut Saturday in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

“It’s really hard when you drove for 20 years and all of a sudden you’re doing something else,” Castroneves said Thursday as he celebrated his 43rd birthday. “It doesn’t connect. But I’m super happy have the opportunity I do have.”

Sure, he knew this day would come.

But the wait has been the hardest part for one of the world’s steadiest open-wheel drivers.

After making 344 starts, winning 30 races, collecting 141 top-five and 226 top-10 finishes and placing fifth or higher in IndyCar points 13 times in 16 full-time seasons, Castroneves’ career turned in a new direction.

He switched to Roger Penske’s new sports car program after last season and now anchors one of the team’s Acura entries along with defending series champion Ricky Taylor and is happily running full-time on the IMSA circuit.

“It’s great to be back, awesome,” Castroneves said during last week’s testing. “It’s like you’re playing with your old toy that (you) miss so bad.”

Castroneves’ comeback couldn’t begin at a better venue, either.

Only three drivers – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears – have more Indianapolis 500 wins than Castroneves, who also has three runner-up finishes and three additional top-fives in 17 starts on the 2.5-mile oval.

For now, though, Castroneves must remain focused on tinkering with this year’s new aero kit on the track’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course. Practice begins Friday morning with qualifying set for later in the day. There will be another practice round Saturday morning prior to the race.

Weather conditions could create another wrinkle. Saturday’s forecast calls for a high temperature of 93 degrees with a 20 percent chance of rain.

“It should be a bit different than the last two years. It should be a bit warmer, as well, so that should change how the race is going to go,” defending winner and Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud said. “I think the drafting is pretty good here. It’s been strong on the straightaway, so you can certainly get sucked up really well, you can follow closer and not get as affected as before. So there’s more opportunities (to pass) for sure.”

Fortunately for Castroneves, he’s in the best situation of any part-time driver.

He’s been with Penske’s team 19 seasons, has a crew he’s worked with previously, three teammates he worked with last year and just happens to be driving for a team that has won three of the last four series championships and each of the four other Grand Prix’s at Indy.

The question, of course, is how long will it take Castroneves to get up to speed?

Penske’s ballyhooed return to IMSA started slowly. Then last weekend, Castroneves and Taylor drove to their first victory in a race at Mid-Ohio.

Castroneves also won the pole – nipping fellow Penske driver Dane Cameron for a 1-2 Penske start to the race – and he and Taylor combined to lead a race-high 87 laps. The other 38 laps were led by Penske teammates Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished second.

It was Team Penske’s first IMSA win in nearly 10 years, and Castroneves’ first win on the circuit since taking the LMP2 class win in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 4, 2008.

That gives Castroneves momentum heading into the weekend – and renewed hope of becoming the first top-series level driver to win on both of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s courses.

“I do think about that and I have been thinking about that since this race started,” Castroneves said. “I’m ready to go here.”

Kyle Larson wins third consecutive High Limit Sprint race at Eagle Raceway, Rico Abreu second again

Larson High Limit Eagle
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It took four attempts for Kyle Larson to win his first High Limit Sprint Car Series race in the series he co-owns with brother-in-law Brad Sweet, but once he found victory lane, he has been undefeated with his win at Eagle (Nebraska) Raceway. For the second week, Abreu led early only to fall prey to Larson.

The win was Larson’s third straight victory and the fifth consecutive top-five, giving him a perfect sweep of the season after finishing 10th in last year’s inaugural race at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Indiana.

Larson started third behind Abreu and Brent Marks but was embroiled in a fierce battle with Anthony Macri for third during the first dozen laps. Larson slipped by Macri in traffic until a red flag waved for a flip by Lachlan McHugh.

Meanwhile at the front of the pack, Marks retook the lead from Abreu on Lap 18. Larson followed one lap later and then caution waved again. Tyler Courtney lost power and fell to 24th after starting eighth.

Marks scooted away on the restart but tragedy struck in Lap 26. Leading the race, Marks hit a pothole in Turn 1, bicycled and then flipped, handing the lead to Larson.

Abreu caught Larson again during the final laps and in a reprise of their battle at Tri-City Speedway, the two threw sliders at one another for several laps until Larson built some separation and ran away to the checkers.

“I didn’t feel like my pace in [Turns] 1 & 2 slowed down a ton,” Larson said from victory lane. “I missed it once there and then I saw his nose in 3 & 4. I didn’t know if he nailed the bottom that well behind me and I think he might have slid me in the next corner, so he was definitely on the top.

“I was nervous to move up there because my car was really pogoing up in the entry of 1. I got up just in time, made a few mistakes and he threw a couple more sliders at me but he was just a little too far back and I was able to squirt around him. Then I really had to commit to hitting my marks – back my effort down a bit to avoid mistakes.”

After leading early, Abreu fell back as far as sixth, but faith in his car kept hope alive.

“I just needed to do a few things a few laps before I did and fix some angles, then my car got a whole lot better,” Abreu said. “I’m thankful for this team; they do an amazing job. They don’t give up on me. I know my car is going to be there right at the end of these races, so it’s just the discipline of being patient.”

For Abreu, it was his third near-miss this season. He was leading at Lakeside in the 2023 opener until a tire went flat in the closing laps and he lost the lead to Larson late in the Tri-City Speedway race. Abreu has finished sixth or better in his last three High Limit races with each result being progressively better until his pair of runner-up results.

Third-place finisher Scelzi was the hard charger, advancing from 17th.

“I had a very specific plan; don’t go near [the hole in Turn 1],” Scelzi said. “It worked out. No one wanted to start on the top. I think I gained a couple of rows there on the choose cone and ran the middle, which seemed to be better than right around the bottom.”

Michael “Buddy” Kofoid in fourth and Macri rounded out the top five.

World of Outlaws star and former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne was one of 41 entrants, but he was not among the 26 starters. He failed to advance to the Main after finishing eighth in the B Main and seventh in his heat.

Feature Results

A Feature (40 Laps): 1. 57-Kyle Larson[4]; 2. 24-Rico Abreu[1]; 3. 18-Giovanni Scelzi[17]; 4. 71-Michael Kofoid[5]; 5. 39M-Anthony Macri[3]; 6. 9-Chase Randall[9]; 7. 26-Zeb Wise[14]; 8. 1X-Jake Bubak[15]; 9. 8-Aaron Reutzel[10]; 10. 14D-Corey Day[18]; 11. 11-Cory Eliason[12]; 12. 5T-Ryan Timms[11]; 13. 88-Austin McCarl[13]; 14. 21H-Brady Bacon[22]; 15. 48-Danny Dietrich[16]; 16. 7S-Robbie Price[19]; 17. 21-Brian Brown[23]; 18. 22-Riley Goodno[26]; 19. 52-Blake Hahn[25]; 20. 15H-Sam Hafertepe Jr[21]; 21. 3J-Dusty Zomer[6]; 22. 14-Cole Macedo[7]; 23. 19-Brent Marks[2]; 24. 7BC-Tyler Courtney[8]; 25. 25-Lachlan McHugh[20]; 26. 53-Jack Dover[24]

2023 High Limit Sprint Car Series

Race 1: Giovanni Scelzi wins at Lakeside Speedway
Race2: Anthony Macri wins at 34 Raceway
Race 3: Kyle Larson wins at Wayne County Speedway
Race 4: Kyle Larson wins at Tri-City Speedway