Had faced tax-evasion charges
INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves considers Indianapolis his second home.
He’s come to the speedway twice as a defending champion, twice as the defending pole winner. He’s come as a champion dancer and as the star of the most successful IndyCar team in history. He’s scaled the catch fence and had fun with the fans.
But this year will be like none other for the 33-year-old Brazilian.
From the moment Castroneves pulled through that tunnel entrance and into the track’s infield, he was on a brand new mission: To dazzle all those loyal supporters who helped him survive a six-week court battle and weeklong jury debate that nearly ruined his racing career, not to mention his life.
“I want to give back to the fans what they gave to me,” he said. “I feel like I’m a better person, I realize what I love, and where I want to be is here, racing. It feels normal, but there’s something a little better about it now.”
Who could blame Castroneves for feeling that way?
He spent most of the past several months living life in a surreal world, where it seemed every move and every word was being monitored and picked apart by Internal Revenue Service officials
The bubbly personality that captivated fans vanished in the wake of the tax evasion allegations hanging over his head. His trademark smile was replaced by carefully scripted statements and stern expressions. And he had to watch as Penske Racing, his team, hired Australian Will Power to drive his car in his absence.
Now, less than a month after the acquittal drew tears from the usually joyful Castroneves, life is getting back to normal.
He jumped back into the cockpit two days after his court victory and finished seventh in Long Beach, Calif. A week later, he went from 21st on the starting grid at Kansas to a second-place finish.
Now, he’s back home in Indiana, driving on that familiar 2.5-mile oval that turned him into one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers.
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, who has been there for every twist and turn of Castroneves’ career over the past nine years, can see the old Castroneves touch is returning. He’s not all the way back yet, Cindric said, but he is close.
“I think after May, it will feel like normal again,” Cindric said. “I think over the last couple of weeks, he’s started to get his life organized again and he’s getting a little sense of normalcy back.”
The first big sign could come Saturday, when pole qualifying begins for the Indianapolis 500.
The 11 fastest cars will qualify for the top 11 spots on the first of four-qualifying days at Indy. The next 11 spots will be filled Sunday, with the final 11 qualifying May 16. Cars not yet in the 33-car field will have a chance to bump the slowest cars out May 17.
Given Castroneves’ history here, he should be one of the favorites. He won the pole in 2003, his third Indy start, and again in 2007. He has qualified among the top eight each of the past six years, and has only started worse than 11th once in eight trips.
The Indy 500 is May 24.
Rain halted rookie practice for the race on Wednesday. Drivers Nelson Philippe completed the mandatory rookie test before the rain hit. That leaves Stanton Barrett to finish his test to be eligible for the start of qualifications on Saturday.
Philippe, a 22-year-old Frenchman, also was the fastest in the abbreviated session at 217.668 mph. Rookies Mike Conway, Robert Doornbos, Alex Tagliani and Raphael Matos completed their tests Tuesday.
Martin to stay full time in 2010
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mark Martin doesn’t want to drive race cars forever. But as long as he can compete at the highest level, he can’t bring himself to walk away from NASCAR.
Martin said Wednesday he’ll run a full season next year, his 22nd in NASCAR. He’s in the first year of a two-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports, but 2010 was fluid and Martin had initially thought he’d run just a partial schedule next season.
But he’s proven this season to still be at the top of his profession, ending a 97-race winless streak with last month’s victory at Phoenix. At 50, he became the third oldest winner in NASCAR history.
“I’m in the best condition of my life,” Martin said. “I’m recharged, and I’m motivated. Going to the racetrack every weekend is still really fun, and that’s the key. There’s more gas in my tank.”
He will stay in the No. 5 Chevrolet, but sponsorship for next season has not been solidified.