Hélio Castroneves’ victory at Iowa Speedway last Sunday was a feel-good moment for Team Penske, the entire Verizon IndyCar Series fan base and of course, the veteran racer.
It marked the end of a three-year drought and a spot of rejuvenation for the 42-year-old, three-time Indianapolis 500 champion. It also put him within close range of the points lead, sitting eight markers behind championship leader Scott Dixon, who is seeking a fifth title.
The clock is ticking on Castroneves and his chance to win an IndyCar championship. He’s been a runner-up four times and has seen his share of missed opportunities.
In the 2002 Indy Racing League season, Castroneves finished second in the championship, 20 points behind Sam Hornish Jr. His only finish outside the top 10 that year was a 17th at Richmond Raceway, where he started on the outside of the front row. An early accident took him out of contention that day, thus valuable points were lost.
With three races left in the 2013 season, he had a 49-point lead over Dixon, but lost the championship to his Chip Ganassi Racing rival by 27 points. In the dual Grand Prix of Houston weekend, Castroneves’ No. 3 stalled out in both races and had finishes of 18th and 23rd.
One year later, Castroneves once again found himself in the points lead. This time, there were five races left for him to hold on. But he failed to finish in the top 10 in all five events, and the Astor Cup went to Penske teammate Will Power.
Castroneves’ tenure with Penske’s IndyCar program could be coming to an end sooner rather than later. However, that doesn’t mean his future with the organization is in doubt.
— Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) July 10, 2017
Rumors swirled last week that Juan Pablo Montoya and he may be full-timers in a Team Penske sports car next year. On Tuesday, the team confirmed that it would field an entry in the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, though, a driver lineup has not yet been announced.
Castroneves can probably race as long as he wants. He’s made his name one of the most iconic in IndyCar history, and any team owner would love to have him behind the wheel of their car. But his goal is to win the series title this year.
“It’s great momentum to carry on for the championship, and this is exactly what we need,” Castroneves said of the Iowa win. “We’ve just got to carry good momentum, and with that, we just keep doing what we’re doing, putting ourselves in good position to win races.”
Getting past Dixon obviously isn’t an easy task. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has won at every track remaining on the schedule except Gateway Motorsports Park. Castroneves has won at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Gateway, and Sonoma Raceway. Although, his most recent victory among these venues was Sonoma nine years ago.
On the other hand, Penske drivers are putting the pressure on Dixon for the championship lead. All four of them — including Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Josef Newgarden — are within 56 points of the New Zealander.
The final two months of the season certainly won’t have much effect Castroneves’ tremendous legacy, and we don’t yet know when his last IndyCar race will be. But if this is the Swan song of his career as a full-time open-wheel driver, there is no better way to go out than with the Astor Cup held above his head at Sonoma.