Castroneves hopes Hinchcliffe can follow in his dance steps

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Helio Castroneves remembers thinking he wouldn’t defeat Scary Spice.

Nine years later, the Team Penske driver from Brazil recalls his mindset before the finals of his appearance on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007. He expected Spice Girl Mel B. (Melanie Brown) would prevail with partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

“I wasn’t nervous,” the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said late last week. “I was pretty cool because I was happy to be in the finals. I did not think I was going to win because of the (fan) votes. People know Mel B. from all over the world. I was thinking, ‘That’s OK, I’ve already got as far as a I could.’ Then all of a sudden, they handed me the Mirror Ball Trophy. I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I guess our fans are really strong.’”

Castroneves was in Los Angeles a week ago to cheer fellow Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe onto this week’s finals of the hit ABC celebrity dance competition show, in its 23rd season. The two-night finals broadcasts air live on the East Coast beginning at 8 p.m. ET today and 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Castroneves’ advice is simple for Hinchcliffe, who is paired with Australian dancer and Season 21 runner-up Sharna Burgess.

“I told him already, ‘Now you’re in the finals. There’s not much to lose. You can’t play it safe,’” Castroneves said. “They’re just going to go out and have fun.”

That’s what Castroneves did with partner Julianne Hough, who also won in 2006 with speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. Hough is now one of the judges for these finals, which has Hinchcliffe competing against Olympic gold-medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez, retired NFL star Calvin Johnson Jr. and country singer/actress Jana Kramer.

“I had said he would be in the final. Now to win, it’s going to depend on the (fan) votes,” Castroneves said. “It’s not all about the dancing performance. Certainly Hinch and Laurie, they are the strongest (favorites) to be first and second. It will depend upon the votes for first and second.”

Castroneves attributed his victory more to the fan votes than his dancing.

“That was really good to see, the fans backing me up,” he said. “I was lower in (the judges’) score, but it showed the votes put me up there. I hope that’s going to happen in the end with Hinch.”

Hinchcliffe, a 29-year-old Canadian driver for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, said before the competition that he wasn’t much of a dancer. But he’s proven he doesn’t have two left feet. His showmanship, creativity and good looks, as well as displaying a fun personality that make him a favorite with race fans, have helped.

“He did a very cool job, the whole thing, especially blindfolded,” Castroneves said of Hinchcliffe leading a blindfolded Burgess in a semifinal dance that culminated with the driver doing a handstand over top his partner from a chair. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to take a risk in the finals.’ But he took a risk in the semifinals, so what’s he going to do in the finals? It was great to see that.

“I have to give big props to Sharna, his partner, because she definitely knows his strengths and that’s where she’s focused. That’s what happened to me with Julianne, she was focused on my strengths. I guess he’s the type of Broadway guy, great facial expression, and he is really selling out. That’s what Sharna is focusing on. They’ve formed a very good chemistry.”

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