Castroneves hoping to tie Indy record with 4th win

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves' sees Indianapolis as his Magic Kingdom.

He scales fences like Spiderman and cracks one-liners like a standup comedian. He embraces his loyal American fan base and those holding colorful Brazilian flags. He erases bitter memories with a swig of milk and now is in line to join Indy's most exclusive winners club.

Fairytale? No way.

"It's crazy. I feel like, well, maybe they do want me to be a new member of the club," the gregarious Brazilian said of the three four-time Indy 500 winners. "If it's the opposite, I don't know, and I don't want to know. But I feel comfortable here. Actually I feel very comfortable at Indianapolis."

He should given the results.

Castroneves never had to deal with anything like the Andretti Curse or the empty superstitions other drivers thought could send them to Victory Lane. The closest Castroneves came was the disputed finish of 2002, which took almost six weeks to resolve before Castroneves was again declared what else? the winner.

Yes, the 35-year-old driver is a natural at Indy.

In 2001, he became the third rookie since 1928 to win the race, then a year later became the first driver to win each of his first two Indy starts. Only three drivers Rick Mears (six) and A.J. Foyt and Rex Mays (each with four) have won more poles here than Castroneves (three). And of his nine starts at Indy, Castroneves has eight top-10s and six top-fives.

There's more.

A victory in the May 30 race would tie Castroneves with icons Foyt, Mears and Al Unser for most career wins at the Brickyard, making the Brazilian the quickest to No. 4 and the only driver in Indy history with a pair of back-to-back wins.

He's been so good that Danica Patrick joked Tuesday that Castroneves was hogging all the titles.

The anticipation hasn't been this high since Mears won No. 4 in 1991 and then chased No. 5 in 1992. Mears, now Team Penske's driving coach and Castroneves' race-day spotter, believes the Brazilian is worthy of joining the winners list.

"He's been exceptional here," Mears said. "This is just one of those places where he always does well because he's focused."

Despite how it may seem.

The infectious smile and boisterous laugh have become as big a part of Castroneves' persona as his fence-climbing antics and "Dancing With The Stars" title.

And nothing fazes him.

He returned to Indy last year just weeks after being acquitted in a tax-evasion case in Miami and wound up with his favorite post-race drink milk.

This year, as he prepares for the onslaught of questions about No. 4, Castroneves deflects talk of pressure by talking about how odd it seemed to be home for his birthday on May 10 thanks to Indy's condensed schedule.

"See, that's all natural to him, so it's not distracting," Mears said.

What's the real secret to Castroneves' success?

Well, it's not wishing upon a star.

Mears believes Castroneves has a unique ability to treat the Indianapolis 500 like another race and still maintain the intensity needed to deal with the changing winds and variable conditions around the track. Castroneves thinks he's been helped by Mears' advice and the ability to drive for the most successful team in Indy history, Team Penske.

"Why is Helio so good there? He just is," Unser said. "He's got a good team and he races good there."

Castroneves also keeps it simple.

Though he has never led more than 66 laps in a single 500, he has more Brickyard wins than any non-American. Even more incredible Castroneves has finished every lap in eight of his nine Indy starts, failing only in 2006 when he tangled with former race winner Buddy Rice after 109 laps.

Away from Indy, his magical touch hasn't been so great.

Castroneves won a career-high four times in 2006, but hasn't won more than twice in any other season since 2002. He has never won a points title, and after five races this season ranks third, behind teammate Will Power and former champ Scott Dixon. And though Castroneves owns 16 career IndyCar wins, nearly one-fourth of those came at the track that matters most.

He's so good at Indianapolis, though, that Unser believes Castroneves could break the record.

"You look at Daytona and guys have won it seven times, five times, whatever, and it'll happen at Indy the same way," Unser said. "After it happens, they'll say, 'How about a fifth, a sixth or a seventh?' I'd like to have won 10 of them, but it didn't happen."

But Castroneves refuses to look that far ahead.

He had the two fastest laps in practice over the first four days, 227.046 mph in primary car and 226.603 in his backup, making him a favorite to win the pole for a second straight year. And, of course, increase the chatter about a record-tying win.

"It's not pressure," Castroneves said. "It's a challenge. It's a magic place for me. When you have great success, when you do well, it's hard not to enjoy."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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