After another title near-miss, Castroneves awaits INDYCAR fate

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SONOMA, California – Sitting in the shadows on Sonoma Raceway’s pit lane wall after Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Helio Castroneves assured that the sun has not yet set on his racing career after the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale.

“One thing I know,” the Team Penske driver said of his uncertain future, “I’ll be driving. I’ll be driving next year, for sure.”

While celebrated for his 20th year of Indy car racing in 2017, the 42-year-old Brazilian also became the subject of rumor and speculation that legendary team owner Roger Penske might want Castroneves to drive a sports car next year.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner finished fifth in Sunday’s race that concluded the Verizon IndyCar Series season to end up a close fourth in the points chase. Although disappointed that his bid to win a first series title came up 44 points shy of teammate Josef Newgarden, Castroneves balanced being sentimental with another assurance.

“I’m not retiring, geez,” he said. “People talk to me like I’m retiring, especially the fans. Relax. I’ve still got a lot of fuel to burn.”

Team Penske president Tim Cindric approached to thank Castroneves on a job well done – the 30-time race winner and 50-time pole sitter was assigned the responsibility of keeping four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing from reaching the leaders as part of the team’s master plan.

“What are we doing?” a chuckling Castroneves said to Cindric in a joking reference to 2018.

“You and Roger can do all the talking,” Cindric said.

This much seems certain: Castroneves will be back in an Indy car at least in May. When asked if he would trade any of his three Indy 500 wins for a series championship, he said, “No, I worked so darn hard for those Indy 500 wins, and I’m going to get one more.”

Penske said on Friday that a decision on Castroneves had not yet been made and wouldn’t be determined until after the weekend.

Although rarely at a loss for words, a recent bout with laryngitis decreased the Castroneves decibels as he prepared for the race. He came to California early to avoid Hurricane Irma, which did some damage to his family’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“We have a snapped tree and a little bit of damage on the dock,” he said. “I really liked that palm tree.”

Castroneves often sounds like he’s on an emotional pendulum. He can be serious one minute, then upbeat the next. True to optimistic form, he tried to accentuate the positive about his home.

“We’re lucky, to be honest,” he said. “We still have no power, but at least my family and myself, we’re out of there. I didn’t want to take a chance to go there and all of a sudden the airport is closed and not be able to come back here. That would be a problem. So I decided to come (to California) early.”

Castroneves likes to remind he’s lucky to still be doing what he loves for Team Penske. He laughed at his own joke on Wednesday when discussing his most important goal is to win a fourth Indy 500.

“Yeah, that one is still (there),” he said of his quest to join four-time winners A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. “When you guys talk about the championship, that one is still hanging there a little bit. Boy, I try. My therapist told me not to talk about it. I can’t get over it.”

His legacy is intact, yet the series fixture wants more. That’s why fans love him and competitors admire and respect him.

“I would say he’s part of the furniture,” said teammate Simon Pagenaud, the defending series champion. “You talk INDYCAR, one of the first names to come up is Castroneves. You talk about Castroneves in Europe, everybody knows who he is. He’s famous. He’s been around so long. He’s won three Indy 500s. He’s big. He’s helped this sport grow, and with his attitude, he’s represented this sport really well.

“Sport is a great show and Helio is a great show on TV himself. His personality went really well with how this sport is. He’s been a leader of the sport for many, many years. It’s been great to have been his teammate, great to be his teammate. I’ve learned a lot from him, for sure.”

Castroneves proved again in 2017 that he’s consistently fast. It’s the 14th time in 17 years he’s finished in the top five in points, and he finished sixth in two of those other years.

Regardless of what happens next, the former “Dancing with the Stars” winner didn’t dance around how he would like to be remembered as a racer.

“I guess as a versatile person,” he said, smiling. “I can drive a race car. I can have fun on TV and I can probably dance, too. Yeah, I’m very honored to be in this position, to do what I love. Not many people have that pleasure.”

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