Castroneves still feels the fire to drive, but will it still be with Team Penske?

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Helio Castroneves doesn’t buy the perception that, as a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, he has a ride with Team Penske for as long as he wants.

But the Brazilian sounds optimistic about returning to drive for Roger Penske in 2017. While much of the team’s offseason buzz has centered on the future of teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, Castroneves is also at the end of a contract.

“We’re still having conversations and I have to say that where I’m at today, it’s been incredible with Team Penske and anything I’m going to do, first I’m going to talk to Roger,” Castroneves said during the Verizon IndyCar Series 2916 finale weekend at, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma Raceway.

“I feel that R.P., (team president Tim) Cindric and the rest of the guys, if they didn’t like me they would say right away with a straight face, which I hope they do like me. The thing is, I enjoy working with a team that gives me this equipment and I feel this marriage is still working. Even though we didn’t win this championship with me, we won a championship together.”

Castroneves drove his No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet to seventh place at Sonoma, which locked up third place in the series points as Team Penske celebrated a 1-2-3 sweep in the standings with champion Simon Pagenaud and runner-up Will Power.

As the team prepared to celebrate a memorable conclusion to Penske’s 50th year in racing, both “The Captain” and Cindric said driver contracts would be resolved in the next month or so.

Castroneves, 41, insisted he hasn’t lost an ounce of desire after 19 seasons racing Indy cars. He won his first race in 2000 and arrived to Indianapolis Motor Speedway triumphantly in 2001, celebrating his first Indy 500 victory in his first start at the fabled track. Castroneves has finished second in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship four times, third three times and worse than sixth only once (11th in 2011).

While a series title has proven to be elusive, he’s won 29 races and 47 poles. What’s most disconcerting to him is his last victory came at Detroit in 2014, a winless stretch of 43 races that’s the longest drought of his career.

“You’ve still got to execute,” he said of no ride being guaranteed.

Castroneves occasionally questions Team Penske driver coach Rick Mears, a four-time Indy 500 winner, about being able to recognize when it’s time to retire.

“Rick Mears is a person I admire most,” Castroneves said. “I keep asking, ‘When do you feel that it’s time to just change your route?’ He says, ‘When you don’t have desire anymore. When you come to places and you’re angry or upset or you don’t want to be here.’”

Castroneves concedes from the continual conversation that he gets upset just wondering about when it could end “because I love it so much.

“Racing is the air that I breathe. If you translate that to R.P., the work that he does, if he stopped working we probably wouldn’t see him. Many people who love their job probably talk about that. I’m just fortunate to do what I’ve been doing for so many years and well, and hopefully we’ll keep going.”

Despite the drought, Castroneves is usually in the hunt on race day. This past season, he had a pair of seconds and thirds, one fourth and three fifths.

“Well, I have to be honest, you always want to be battling for the championship, but sometimes you wish and things don’t happen,” he said. “One thing, I keep pushing, I keep getting the best out of my guys and myself. We keep working together so that we can achieve our goals, which is not only to win races but win the championship.

“We were able to be really competitive, but unfortunately you can only control things in ourselves, not control things outside ourselves. That’s probably what happened most in 2016, cars on top of us, yellows coming at a time that definitely didn’t help us out. Things like that definitely hurt us, but we never lost the sight and we kept focused.”

In good times or bad, Castroneves has always been one to wear his emotions on the sleeve of his firesuit.

“I guess every year we don’t get it, it gives me motivation to go out next year and do it better and try to get it,” he said of a series title. “You know, I always say and repeat and I’m going to say it again, it wasn’t meant to be. But as far as giving everything we’ve got, I’ve been doing that. (As long as) I’m putting on my helmet and driving the car and still have the fire inside, I’m going to do that.”

He laughed when asked to describe his level of career consistency.

“How do they say that saying? Bridesmaid but never the bride. Is that what it is?” Castroneves said. “Thank God I don’t know that. Next year, we want to change that.”

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