Ryan: The overlooked cunning of Helio Castroneves makes him an Indy 500 legend

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS – With hundreds of fans surging against the metal barriers surrounding Victory Circle, wildly chanting his name, Helio Castroneves played the crowd with the same virtuosity as behind the wheel.

“Let me tell you, it’s not the end of it, it’s the beginning,” he jubilantly said, triggering another in the incessant waves of resounding cheers that rocked the Brickyard for the better part of an hour Sunday after an historic 105th Indy 500.

“I don’t know if this is a good comparison or not, but Tom Brady won the Super Bowl. Phil Mickelson won the Masters and now here we go! So the old guys still got it, still kicking the young guys’ butt, you know! We’re teaching them a lesson. This is absolutely incredible.”

RELIVE THE CELEBRATION: Helio Castroneves’ unforgettable postrace party

The comparison was perfect because just like Brady and Mickelson, it was veteran savvy that sewed up Castroneves’ record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory.

The ebullient Brazilian showed again at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that he is a man of many talents. The former “Dancing With The Stars” winner is an all-time people’s champion in the NTT IndyCar Series with fence-climbing, frontstretch-jogging outbursts of exuberance that are contagious for a crowd of 135,000 screaming “HEL-I-O! HEL-I-O.”

Yet that star magnetism shades some of his cerebral brilliance in caricature. During his 20 years at buttoned-up Team Penske, Castroneves sometimes stood out like a cartoon character with his quirkiness and oft-unintentional irreverence.

There were signs of it again amidst the bedlam Sunday.

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
Helio Castroneves poses Monday with the Borg-Warner Trophy after his fourth Indy 500 victory (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

Aside from incorrectly identifying the most recent golf major won by Mickelson (it was the PGA Championship), Castroneves also referenced telling Al Unser Jr. a night earlier at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse in downtown Indianapolis that he was ready to join the club of four-time Indy 500 winners (he meant Unser’s father, who stands with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and now Castroneves as co-holders of the Brickyard’s most prestigious honor).

On Monday, the newest four-time Indy 500 winner posted an Instagram video in which he gleefully showed off his Borg-Warner Trophy (while apparently oblivious that he was holding his smartphone camera at an awkward angle).

But Castroneves’ goofiness belies the cunning required to win the biggest race in the world.

Despite his four victories, Castroneves easily could have two more if he had made the right decisions to outwit Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 and Takuma Sato in ’17 (two of his three second-place finishes at Indy). All of those missteps were applied to his 21st Indy 500 start.

At 46, he has perfected the thinking man’s game for the 500-Mile Race, and the final 50 laps Sunday were a master class of three-dimensional chess at 230 mph by a dashing driver whose intelligence somehow still gets underrated at Indy.

But Mike Shank spotted that sublime instinct for navigating traffic, which is why Meyer Shank Racing filled its No. 06 Dallara-Honda with Castroneves for a partial 2021 season, his first outside of Penske in two decades.

“Man, Helio is just so good here,” Shank said. “I really got to witness it today. Kind of around (Lap) 150, I’m looking at him. Finally I figured out about 155 he’s doing this on purpose. Everything he did from 150 on was a chess match. He knew exactly what he was doing. That’s the G.O.A.T. in him. … He was calculated. Exactly what I expected.”

Helio Castroneves cunning Indy
(Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trailing the battle between Castroneves and runner-up Alex Palou, third-place finisher Simon Pagenaud said he could tell that Castroneves, his former Penske teammate, was toying with Palou and forcing the Spaniard to reveal all of his defensive maneuvers as well as his weaknesses around the 2.5-mile oval.

“Helio was just waiting,” Pagenaud said. “He knew exactly where he could get him, when he could get him. All of a sudden, he jumped at (Palou’s) throat like a tiger. That’s when the attack started” with about seven laps remaining.

“He knows where to position the car,” Pagenaud said of Castroneves. “He knows how to play the game. The last 15 laps, he wasn’t even trying to pass Palou. Palou was showing him everything that he could do, and Helio was just watching. Palou I’m sure will rewatch the race and understand what Helio was playing. It was pretty cool to see from behind. I was trying everything to join him because I knew what he was doing.

“It was basically a four-time legend showing a rookie how to win the race, and that was amazing.”

Palou said he will rewatch the finish daily until IndyCar’s Detroit doubleheader two weeks from now. The second-year Chip Ganassi Racing driver (who has shown extraordinary acclimation to ovals, which he began racing only last season) seemed confused as to how he’d been beaten despite having what he believed was the faster car.

“I was able just to manage when I wanted to pass him,” said Palou, who led 35 laps to Castroneves’ 20. “But the thing is that after three, four laps, he was behind me, he was able to pass me and I couldn’t really do anything.

“I need to ask (Castroneves) if he was going all out the last 15 laps or if he was waiting for the last four to overtake me. If he was waiting for the last four, then that was experience. If he was just going all out, he had better timing today.”

Castroneves’ exquisite timing was about the experience of having 19 more Indy 500 starts than Palou.

The conventional wisdom entering the race was that the winning pass would happen on the last lap. But when Castroneves spotted a gaggle of cars more than a straightaway ahead with more than a lap remaining, he punched the throttle to pass Palou.

“I decided just to go, not lose momentum, that’s the moment,” Castroneves said. “Once I saw the traffic, I timed it absolutely right.”

Gaining speed off the tow from the cars ahead, Palou had no chance of catching Castroneves with a counter-slingshot on the final lap.

Pagenaud compared his 2019 Indy 500 duel over Alexander Rossi with Castroneves’ winning move Sunday.

“This place is all about experience,” Pagenaud said. “what Helio did at the end, I want to rewatch it. There was something going on. There was a lot of that between me and Rossi in 2019. But I think he just took it to a whole other level. He’s got a feel for this place. Also I feel like the more you love the place, the more the place loves you back. There’s something really strange about it.

“All Helio thinks about is the 500. Everybody talks about his line being different than anybody else. I don’t quite understand why he’s running that line, to be honest with you. I’ve always tried to understand. No matter what year it is, what package it is, it works. He just knows what he needs from the race car. He knows when he’s going to be in the fight for the win. He keeps it to himself.”

Look hard, though, and you can see the smart and quick-witted assassin buried beneath Castroneves’ persona of a fun-loving court jester.

“All the years of finishing second paid off,” Castroneves said with a wink. “I have to tell (Team Penske president Tim) Cindric I’m becoming a good poker player now.”

IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianapolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told NBCSports.com.

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”

Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.

Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500