Helio Castroneves, the always upbeat Brazilian with the infectious personality, is poised to add his name to the Indy 500 record book again. Sitting on the pole and considered an early favorite, he will be only the fourth driver to score four wins in the Memorial Day weekend classic if he can pull off the victory.
He’d join AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, the only other drivers who have accomplished the feat. To add his name to that list would be to put himself among the greats in the sport. And Castroneves has something very important in common with two of those drivers that just might be the one thing that makes his odds of victory very promising; he has Roger Penske.
Unser was driving for Penske when he scored his fourth and final win in the 500 in 1987 at the age of 47, making him the oldest ever winner of the race. Mears was driving a Penske entry for all four of his race wins. Like Mears, Castroneves was also driving for Penske for all three of his previous victories.
Penske has 15 wins all told in the classic, scoring the first of those in 1972 with Mark Donahue and a then fledgling racing operation. The real dominance began in 1979, when Penske scored his second victory with Mears. 14 total victories came between 1979 and 2009. That’s nearly a win every two years, but add in the fact that Penske wasn’t at the speedway between 1996 and 2000, and it’s even more impressive.
Since his return in 2001, Penske’s cars have won five of nine races, three with Castroneves and one each with Gil de Ferran (2003) and Sam Hornish Jr. (2006). Castroneves took the win back to back in 2001 and 2002 (incidentally, no one has ever won more than two consecutive races), putting him in the record book as the driver with the best finish in his first two races. A second place to teammate de Ferran in 2003 makes him the driver with the best finish in his first three races.
Castroneves scored his third victory last year. It was an especially satisfying win for the likable driver who faced prison time over tax issues just a few months earlier. (Perhaps this is the subject of another article, but could the IRS have possibly picked a target that made them seem like more of a villain picking on the good guy?) Cleared of the charges and with his legal troubles behind him, winning the Indy 500 seemed the perfect way to emphasize where Castroneves really belongs.
If he wins on Sunday, Castroneves will also be the only driver to win back to back twice, giving him yet another entry in the Indy 500 record books. Mark Martin take note: Castroneves has always been a contender but has never won a series championship. Yet if he can keep his own Penske powered teammates at bay and finds himself drinking the milk in victory lane for the fourth time on Sunday, there would be little argument that he would cement his place among the greats in IndyCar history.