Castroneves not looking past opportunity for first championship

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Helio Castroneves is lurking once again, running second in the Verizon IndyCar Series points and poised to make another serious push for a championship that has eluded the Team Penske driver for two decades.

Four races remain, and this could be his last shot. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner is reportedly a serious consideration for a Penske sports car ride next season, which could limit his INDYCAR participation to only the Indianapolis 500.

The 42-year-old Brazilian won’t say much about that possibility. He’s seven points behind teammate Josef Newgarden in a fiercely competitive chase that includes four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske, 2014 series winner Will Power of Team Penske and Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

That keeps Castroneves fixated on the present.

“We can’t think in the future yet,” he said after finishing seventh July 30 in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. “At the moment, I’m really focused on this. I feel like we have a phenomenal chance.”

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A series title is what’s missing from an impressive resume that includes 30 victories, which ranks 10th on the all-time Indy car list, and the three career-defining Indy 500 triumphs. He’s been close too many times before, finishing second in the points in 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2014.

In a season when Castroneves and fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing have been recognized for 20 years of Indy car racing, Castroneves has continually proven he can still keep up with the quickest cars. He’s won three poles to boost his career total to 50. His most recent in the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America on June 25 broke a tie with fellow three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser for third on the all-time list.

Castroneves’ consistency has produced six top-five results in 13 races and only one finish outside the top 10.

On the biggest stage, Castroneves dueled with Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato at the end of May’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. He lost that battle by two-tenths of a second, finishing second in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” a third time.

What Castroneves wants more than anything is a fourth win in that race, so he can join the only three legends who have ever done it: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. The latter has been Team Penske’s longtime driver coach.

After this year’s Indy 500, Castroneves reset to put his energy into another championship pursuit. 

He’s chasing a first-year teammate who is the series’ hottest driver. Newgarden has won two consecutive races and three this season to double his career win total. The good-natured Tennessean has playfully referred to the wily Castroneves, known for his finely combed black hair, as the “Silver Fox.” Newgarden’s emergence could be giving Castroneves more gray hairs, not that the latter would admit it.

“(Newgarden has) done a phenomenal job,” Castroneves said. “No question Roger (Penske) has a talent for picking good people.

“But, (Newgarden) is helping me rejuvenate. It motivates a lot, all the guys, the new guys and the older, faster guys. In these conditions, it shows that we (older guys) can do it. So let’s make it happen.”

The Chevrolet-powered Team Penske cars are continually among the fastest in the field with seven victories this season. Castroneves contributed a July 9 win to that total with a triumph in the Iowa Corn 300. Not only was it the first time a Penske car had won at Iowa in eight years, it snapped a Castroneves winless streak of 53 races that began in 2014.

“You can use a little bit your teammates’ (information) in case something's not going well,” Castroneves said. “You can still take advantage of that and collect a bit more points.

"That's the name of the game. As Will (Power) mentioned, it's a very good problem for our team to have. We’re going to obviously try to finish 1-2-3-4 in the championship.”

They basically did that a year ago. Pagenaud won the championship, Power finished second and Castroneves third. Newgarden, then with Ed Carpenter Racing, was fourth.

All four are back in the mix this year, as well was the two Honda drivers. Dixon is only one point behind Castroneves. Pagenaud is just nine points behind Dixon. Power is 35 behind Pagenaud. And Rahal is six points behind Power.

Castroneves was displeased about his result at Mid-Ohio, but standing on the pit wall, the normally upbeat driver put on a happy face and accentuated the positive of staying in the hunt. He’s not looking too far into that future. He’s eager to face the challenge of these final four races.

“Especially inside the team, it’s really cool to have that kind of competition around,” he said. “I’m happy that we’re there, but I’ll be happier when we beat them all.”

The first of those final four races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season is the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. The race airs live at 2 p.m. ET Aug. 20 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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