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Helio in Victory Lane - Photo by Burzy
Helio in Victory Lane - Photo by Burzy
May 24th 2009 - By:  Mark W. Theisen

     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 24, 2009:  The month of May 2009 will be forever ingrained in the mind of Helio Castroneves.  First he is acquitted of Federal Tax Evasion charges just over a month ago and returns to open wheel racing,  then thoroughly dominates the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:  winning the pole; then the pit stop contest and then finally the ultimate victory in winning the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500.

     So dominate was the powerful Roger Penske owned and prepared race car that the outcome was really never in question as the 500 miles unfolded. The team strategy was to take it easy until the final pit stop and then turn on the power and when that time came Castroneves was never headed to claim the unimaginable 15th Indianapolis 500 win for Penske.

     The win for Castroneves today was his third in 9 starts at Indy.  After winning his first two 500’s in 2001 & 2002 it took him seven years to return to victory circle at Indy but this win places him in a very elite group of 6 drivers who have won the race three times and with being 34 years old he could conceivably become the first driver to win the race five times, only three have won it four times:  A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, the latter two being Penske drivers so the outlook is very good for the personable Brazilian driver whose trials and tribulations of the past year have endeared him even more to his legion of fans.

     The start of the race saw Marco Andretti and Mario Moraes come together in the first turn of the first lap wiping out the hopes of the third generation Andretti family member before even getting started.  Each driver claimed the other came down on him but the end result was yet another set back for Andretti who lost the 2006 500 on the last lap to the last Penske winner here, Sam Hornish Jr.

     Castroneves led the first lap of the race and then through the 6 laps of caution to clean the track of debris from the first lap crash.  On the restart 2007 winner, Dario Franchitti got the jump on Castroneves and was in front before the first turn and once in front he was able to make use of the “clean air” to pull away from the rest of the field.

     The race started under warm and humid conditions with a threat of rain and with the humidity came very unstable air for the cars that were running behind the leader and with that came a race strategy that called for getting the car out of the pits the fastest and between Penske and Ganassi, none does it better than they do at Indy.

     Ryan Hunter- Reay brought out the second caution with a hard crash on lap 21 after he swerved to avoid the car of A.J. Foyt IV in the second turn after the latter got loose just ahead of his car.

     This yellow set up the first round of pits stops and it was Franchitti’s crew sending him out ahead of Castroneves teammate Ryan Briscoe with Castroneves now in third followed by last year’s winner Scott Dixon and rookie Raphael Matos.

     Castroneves surrendered third to Dixon on lap 28 as he was content to follow team strategy and protect the car until the time came to him and he seemed content to follow those orders considering they came from a man and a team that had won the race 14 times before, many of those time by just plain outsmarting his competition.

     The day ended for Graham Rahal on lap 57 as while running in  the top five he encountered several cars slowing to make pits stops and just got his car up out of the racing groove and into the fourth turn wall brining out the third caution of the race.

     This caution again set up the second round of pit stops with Briscoe emerging from the stop with the lead but he once under the green Dixon roared past him as the lap worn on he continued to drop back, the victim of a mismatched set of tires that forced him to make a green flag pit stop to change the tires, a stop that put him a lap off the pace of the leaders but with nearly three-fourths of the race let it was not a time to panic for the Penske driver and his team.

     Dixon remained in front for the next 22 laps until veteran Davey Hamilton got out of the racing groove to allow faster cars by him and got caught in the “marbles” near the wall losing control of car sliding in the fourth turn wall on lap 83.

     The fourth rounds of pit stops were completed during this caution with Franchitti being turned out ahead of Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Castroneves, Matos, Will Power and Danica Patrick.

    After the caution it was Dixon and Kanaan who were on the move with Dixon retaking the lead on lap 91 pursued by Kanaan whose day abruptly came to an end 8 laps later when “something broke” on the car going down the backstretch and he lost control of the car sending him hard into the third turn wall causing yet another heartbreak at Indianapolis for a driver who has been the sentimental favorite for some years here not quite being able to muster enough racing luck to pull off the victory.

     Robert Doornbos brought out the sixth caution of the race on lap 132 with a crash also in the fourth turn as he was trying to make his way to pit road.

     This was the time of the race to shine for the pit crews and it was Dixon out first followed by Castroneves, Power, Dan Wheldon, Townsend Bell, Paul Tracy and Briscoe, returning to the top ten after getting back on the lead the previous caution by not pitting with the leaders.  Franchitti experienced trouble in the pits that put him far back in the running order on the restart, a hole he would not be able to dig out of the rest of the race.

     It took just two laps into the restart for Castroneves to exert the power that everyone expected from him all day long as he shot around Dixon on lap 141 to lead lap 142 and once in that “clean” air his car looked unbeatable but he would have to race 58 more laps and that is an eternity at Indianapolis.

     Justin Wilson had a hard crash in the first turn on lap 161 to bring out caution number seven after having the air taken off his rear spoiler sending his car in a full 360 degree spin before striking the wall.

      Now with fewer than 40 laps remaining it was crunch time for the front running cars as if the race were to run to the end under green this would be the crucial stop.

     Team Penske was flawless in sending out Castroneves in first followed by Briscoe, whose crew was order to not fill the tank entirely on the stop to gain valuable track position and also provide a “buffer” between Castroneves and the rest of the field.

     Wheldon, the 2005 500 winner, was turned out in third by his Panther Racing Team followed by Patrick, whose Andretti-Green Racing crew gave here tremendous stops to place her in contention when the time counted.

     Bell and Power followed Patrick with Dixon slipping to seventh after this stop as his usually strong Ganassi pit crew faltered today when it really counted.

     On the restart it was Castroneves again in control but with his having enough fuel to make it to the end in question Penske ordered Briscoe around him to lead the race.  That decision was made because the leader uses more fuel and they could have Briscoe pull him for a while, thus saving fuel for the latter.

      That decision was made moot on lap 174 when a horrific crash between Vitor Meira and Matos brought out the caution for the 8th time.  The pair, battling for a top ten position touched wheels going into the first turn sending Meira’s car sideways and head first into the wall in the first turn.  Meira’s car then got tipped up and rode along the wall for several hundred feet before returning to its wheels in the short chute between the first and second turn.

     It took crews several minutes to carefully extract Meira from the car.  He was alert and awake but was transported to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for further examination after complaining of excessive back pain.  Meira was able to move his hands and feet but track physicians felt he needed more exams necessitating the trip to the hospital.

     With 8 laps needed to clean up the debris from the crash the fuel strategy was thrown out the window and when Castroneves hit the throttle all it left was a battle for second.

     Patrick challenged Wheldon on that final restart but the side by side action allowed Castroneves to pull out to his lead.

     At the end it was a 1.9819 win over Wheldon, Patrick, Bell and Power.  Dixon and Franchitti, who together led the race for 123 laps finished 6th and 7th after being let down by their pit crews during the key stops of the race.  Ed Carpenter, Tracy and Hideki Mutoh rounded out the top ten.

    “This is incredible,” said a tearful Castroneves in victory circle after doing his signature fence climb following a victory in front of his fans.  “I think my tears speak for everything.  What a great team.  I just have to thank, first of all, the Lord for giving me this opportunity, to be strong, to have a family that I have.  I have to thank Roger (Penske), Tim (Cindric), my guys and sponsors and obviously the fans.  You guys (the fans) don’t understand.  You kept me strong.  You are the best.  I am honored to have fans like you.  Thanks so much.  Let’s celebrate now”

     Castroneves tax ordeal ended in April but was Penske who stood behind his driver all along and has to be given all the credit for his belief in the justice system and the fact that he knew his driver did nothing wrong.  Penske has Power in Castroneves car to start the season and once acquitted he was back in the car.  For his help Power was rewarded with a 500 start that ended with a top five finish but now his season is in question as Penske has funding for only two cars for the season.

     “I think it was a good result,” said Power.  “I could see the win there within our reach.  That certainly would have made my situation easier.  I can only hope this result will help me in the future.”

     For Wheldon, it was the best he could have hoped for.  “I’m incredibly excited,” said Wheldon after hoping from his race car, his first 500 start John Barnes and Panther Racing. “Unfortunately we didn’t have quite enough for Helio (Castroneves) and the whole Penske organization.  I have to say, there’s not many races that I’ve done in my career where I can honestly say that the team executed 100 percent and they did so today.  They made my job so easy today and I can only look to the future with this team.”

      Also praising her team was Patrick.  Vocal in the past about poor performances from her crew today she credited them with her best ever 500 finish even after being the first female driver to lead the 500, that coming in 2005.

     “I am really pleased with today’s effort,” said Patrick.  “Those last two pits stops put me in contention and that’s all a driver can ask for.  I had a good car all day and they made it better at the end.  They gave me the track position but I just did not have enough down force at the end to get by Dan (Wheldon).  I got alongside him and that was it.  I knew then we had about the same and I just hooked up with him in hopes of catching Helio (Castroneves) but that was not to be today.  I felt the track got better for us today and we did a great job in keeping up with it and that helped us to a third.

     Bell’s fifth place finish was a surprise to everyone but him and his KV Racing team.  After storming through the field at the start moving from 24 to 11 in the first 30 laps he fell back due to a poor pit stop but came right back to claim his top five finish.  “We said all month long we wanted to take it one step at a time, and we did that,” said Bell, who had only two previous Indy 500 starts and the fifth today was by far his best.  “Jimmy (Vasser) and Kevin (Kalkhoven) put their faith in me and gave me the best car I ever had had.  I am so happy to finish in the top five for them.”

     Alex Tagliani was the highest finishing rookie in the field, finishing 11th after starting shotgun (33rd) on the field as a record 19 cars finished on the lead lap.  The previous record was 16 back in 1959.

     Today’s race had only six lead changes, which is the fewest number of leads changes for a race going the full 500 mile distance since 1965.  The record is one for the 1930 race.

     The three female drivers in the race completed 599 laps out of a possible 600 with Patrick and Sarah Fisher completing all 200 laps and Milka Duno finishing one lap off the pace.  

     Fisher was all smiles after the race.  Her 17th place finish was her best in 8 starts and it is with her own team.  After crashing out of last year’s race with Kanaan and leaving the track in tears with a wrecked car she returned to Indy this with a solid sponsor and a stronger team.  “It went OK,” said Fisher.  It was a tough day and difficult to pass but the car is in one piece and we have a better schedule this year than last.  That is progress and I’m excited about that.”

     The closeness of today’s Indy car racing is brought about by the same chassis, Dallara; the same engine, Honda and the same tire, Firestone.  The difference is in teams and strategy.  No one in Indy car racing today is better than Penske at Indy.  He lives for the 500 and his effort is placed on the race.  That was evident today as it has been for the past nine years, winning five of his fifteen during this new age of Indy car racing.  He understands that seconds make the difference with the equal package available to all and he knows how to find those seconds and how to them work for him.

    The crowd seemed down for the race today as empty seats were readily seen, but considering the economic times we deal with today I thought it was a good crowd as the speedway will never announce the actual attendance figure.

     At the close of the day it was announced that Meira suffered broken vertebra and will be hospitalized for a few days as treatment is determined.


Race highlights from the 2009 Indianapolis 500