INDIANAPOLIS – The end was too familiar, too agonizing, too close to history. Once more, the bubbly Brazilian driving the No. 3 Team Penske car would be denied victory No. 4 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Helio Castroneves tried to sound positive but couldn’t hide his disappointment after losing a late duel with Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday.
This was another golden opportunity for Castroneves to join Hall of Famers A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser as celebrated four-time Indy 500 winners.
But Castroneves was forced to settle for second — just like three years ago, when he lost to Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, as well as in 2003, when he lost to teammate Gil de Ferran. Castroneves joins six other drivers who also accumulated three runner-up finishes in the Indy 500.
“Yes, it's tough to accept,” Castroneves said. “After so many things happened, at least (I can) give you the perspective that I did my best. I really pushed it. The guys did a phenomenal job. We drove our heart (out), no question.
“Yes, finishing second again sucks. So close to get the fourth (win). I really am trying. I will not give up this dream. I know it's going to happen.”
Castroneves’ No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet had to overcome a career-worst 19th starting position at the Indy 500, avoid a major crash by speeding underneath Scott Dixon’s airborne car, then bounce back from a drive-through penalty for jumping a restart to set up the showdown with Sato.
Castroneves overtook Sato on Lap 194 of a race that featured a record 15 different leaders. But Sato’s No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda never drifted far from the leader’s tail, then regained the lead just before the yard of bricks start/finish line at the end of Lap 195.
And that was it.
Castroneves tried to pass on the outside on Lap 199, but couldn’t hold the grip and drifted back with two laps remaining.
“Unfortunately, I couldn't do it,” Castroneves said. “The car just start pushing a little bit. It just didn't suck in.”
Sato, 40, had been in an Indy 500 duel before and lost. Five years ago on the final lap, he pushed inside of Dario Franchitti to try to take the lead in Turn 1. The cars bumped, Sato crashed out, and Franchitti swigged the milk in victory lane for the third time.
Sato, the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500, commended Castroneves for maintaining space so they could race. In 2012, Sato accused Franchitti of pinching him, although Sato later said he could have executed a smarter passing attempt.
“Helio really drives fair,” Sato said. “I can trust him. I can really (trust him) coming from the outside.”
Castroneves said their cars made light contact.
“He bumped me a couple of times,” he said of Sato. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy was not breakable.’”
Castroneves’ day almost ended early. On Lap 53, pole sitter Scott Dixon launched over and off Jay Howard into top of the SAFER Barrier inside the south short chute between Turns 1 and 2. As Dixon’s No. 9 Camping World Honda went airborne, Castroneves accelerated underneath on the warmup lane to escape the carnage. Neither Dixon nor Howard were injured.
“When I saw Scott flipping, I just tried to avoid it,” Castroneves said. “Thank God. Something was going to happen, but I didn’t think so fast, so I jumped (inside). I didn’t know how I held on.”
In addition to passing underneath Dixon in the race, Castroneves passed Dixon for the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead after the sixth of 17 races. Castroneves has accumulated 245 points while Dixon, Sato and reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud all have 234. Dixon has won four series titles in addition to the 2008 Indy 500.
Castroneves has not yet won a series crown, but the No. 1 objective each year is Indianapolis. Castroneves drives for legendary team owner Roger Penske, who has a record 16 Indy 500 victories. Like the other Team Penske drivers, Castroneves is mentored by Mears, another daily reminder of team greatness.
Castroneves burst onto the Indy 500 scene by winning his first two Indy 500 starts, in 2001 and 2002. “Spider-man” celebrated by climbing the front-straight fence. The third victory came in 2009.
But in his 20th year of Indy car racing, he’s at times become quite sentimental. He knows time is running short.
Although his 29 career wins are tied with Mears for 12th on Indy car’s all-time list, Castroneves hasn’t celebrated a victory in what will be three years on June 1 – a winless drought of what will be 50 races come Saturday’s first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear.
After the latest near-miss in his publicized pursuit of history, Castroneves mentioned the 2003 Indianapolis 500 as the race that truly got away. Specifically, he lamented giving up the lead to de Ferran after slowing for a lapped car.
“(If) I knew that A.J. Foyt IV would back off that much in Turn 2, I would go for it,” Castroneves said of the lapped car. “Obviously, I was about three, four seconds ahead, or two seconds ahead of Gil. It was so bad that I have to slow down to third gear so that we don't crash. Obviously, Gil came with the momentum and passed me. That would be the biggest one.”
The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear represents the only doubleheader race weekend on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in 2017. Live coverage of the races on Saturday and Sunday begins at 3:30 p.m. on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. For ticket information, visit detroitgp.com.
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