Helio Castroneves hoping SRX win leads to seat in Daytona 500

Castroneves SRX Daytona 500
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Justin Marks’ own mother heard the rumor and texted her son, the owner of Trackhouse Racing, to find out if SRX winner Helio Castroneves will be running the Daytona 500 for the NASCAR team.

That would be the logical spot for the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who has longed to give NASCAR a shot. Don Hawk, the first-year CEO of the Superstar Racing Experience, told Castroneves that if he won one of the summer all-star series races, Hawk would help Castroneves get a NASCAR start.

Well, Castroneves won the SRX opener last Saturday night, and Hawk has been burning up the phone lines since.

Trackhouse Racing last month announced “Project91” to help international drivers enter NASCAR races. Retired Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen is first up with a scheduled August start on the road course at Watkins Glen.

“My side job is representing Mr. Castroneves,” Hawk said. “Phone calls have been taking place, the ball is rolling. We’re not ready to say a whole lot publicly. But the ball is rolling. It all depends on how this thing rolls out, whether we’re going to look at more than one race or optional races.

“The intention originally was he really wanted to run in the Daytona 500, it was a crown jewel. And so we’re really going to try to make the Daytona 500 work.”

Because of the Trackhouse program, speculation instantly turned to Project91 as the landing spot for Castroneves. He’s won Indianapolis four times, the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and an IMSA sports car championship, but could never convince Roger Penske to give him a shot in NASCAR.

Marks told The Associated Press that he has not spoken to Hawk about Castroneves, but “my mom texted me and asked `Are you talking to Helio?’ ”

Castroneves doesn’t know what deals Hawk might be working, but he’s very serious about getting into next year’s Daytona 500. He will be 47 years old when “The Great American Race” rolls around next February and now drives for Meyer Shank Racing in IndyCar, a team that does not prohibit him from extracurricular racing.

“I drove for so many years with Roger Penske and I was not able to get an opportunity there. Now, I have an opportunity in my contract, so why not, why not try something that I never did,” Castroneves said. “So now I’m trying SRX, IMSA, IndyCar. It will be very natural to try something that I’ve always (wanted to do), which was NASCAR.

“I know it will be tough, but hey, who knows, in racing you never expect how things could be surprising. Hopefully I’m going to get into it with Don and be in the Daytona 500 for sure.”

Part of Tony Stewart’s hope in creating SRX last year was that it would help drivers find other opportunities and it worked in its inaugural season. Ernie Francis Jr., a seven-time class champion in the Trans Am Series, caught Penske’s eye when he won the SRX race in Indianapolis and it led to a full-time ride this year in the Indy Lights Series.

Castroneves turning an SRX win into a Daytona 500 would be the biggest payoff for this strategy to date.

The wildest part of Castroneves’ deal with Hawk is that he won last Saturday night at Five Flags Speedway in Florida, where SRX had no idea Castroneves was racing. His participation over the six Saturday nights is built around his IndyCar schedule, and there was a misunderstanding over Castroneves’ participation in the opening race.

He was already on the plane headed to Pensacola last Friday night when it was discovered SRX did not know he was coming. SRX had available cars – the premise of the series is that all the cars are equally prepared for star drivers from multiple formulas of racing – and had one ready for Castroneves when he arrived.

“It shows you that the 16 cars we prepared are really what we say they are, they’re equal cars. That car was not even going to be raced and it won,” Hawk said. “He started scratch on the field and he won. There’s so many things that went in the right direction. We had four spare cars, any one of them you could just put your seat insert in and we’re good to go.”

SRX races this Saturday night live on CBS at South Boston Speedway in Virginia. Peyton Sellers, a native of Danville, Virginia, and six-time South Boston track champion, is the weekly “ringer” entered in the field.

“I rank this opportunity right at the top of things I’ve been able to do,” Sellers said. “I had the opportunity in 2005 to run the Rolex 24 at Daytona. I have had the opportunity to race an Xfinity car at Indianapolis. I’ve had a chance to race Daytona, Talladega, a lot of those tracks. To have the caliber of drivers we’ve got, to have the caliber of cars we’ve got in SRX is big. With the caliber of program SRX has put together, for me to be asked to be a part of it is a really neat opportunity.”