Castroneves ends dry spell
SONOMA, Calif. -- Helio Castroneves finally found the fence again, pumping fresh drama into the IndyCar Series championship.
After going 29 races without a win -- during which Castroneves was deprived of his signature victory celebration of scaling the grandstands fence -- the Brazilian won the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County on Sunday.
Castroneves won from the pole at the curvy Infineon Raceway road course, slashing Scott Dixon’s lead in the title standings to 43 points from 78 with two races remaining.
A frustrated Dixon finished 12th.
After taking the checkered flag, the ebullient Castroneves got out of his red and white No. 3 Penske Racing car, climbed over a 4-foot-high gray metal fence in front of the grandstands and plunged into the crowd, which mobbed him with high-fives and pats on the helmet.
“It’s been a long time,” said Castroneves, 33, who led 51 of the race’s 80 laps. “The car was superb. I was pushing it to the limit, there was nothing left out there.”
Asked whether he scoped out the Infineon fence before the race, Castroneves admitted he had and that he told a cameraman to be ready after the race.
“It was just a positive attitude,” he said.
Castroneves’ teammate Ryan Briscoe, who started second, finished second to give Penske a 1-2 sweep. Tony Kanaan was third, Dan Wheldon fourth and Danica Patrick fifth.
The victory was Castroneves’ first since he gained widespread fame as the co-winner of the “Dancing with the Stars” TV show last fall, and he joked that despite all the dancing, he still was out of breath after climbing the Infineon fence.
None of which was funny to the taciturn Dixon, a New Zealander known as the “Iceman.” It was his second-worst finish in a season that has otherwise been stellar, with six victories and a dozen top-five finishes overall.
“It was definitely a bad day,” said Dixon, who drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “I guess we just need to shrug it off and come back strong next week.
“I’m not upset with anybody particularly, we just did absolutely nothing right.”
The win was the 13th of Castroneves’ career, and he now has at least one victory in 10 consecutive years.
Castroneves’ wins include two Indianapolis 500 victories, but he has never won the series championship.
The Penske sweep Sunday was even more notable because the team arrived in California wine country at a disadvantage.
The transporter carrying Castroneves’ and Briscoe’s primary cars caught fire on its way to California, destroying both the cars and the truck.
Crew members then scrambled to get two backup cars ready for qualifying and the race. Yet the cars performed flawlessly.
“With everything that happened this week, we never lost faith,” Castroneves said. “When you see guys doing that, you just want to do your best.”
Added team owner Roger Penske: “Helio wanted to get that win, and what a way to do it under the adversity we had this week.”
Many drivers had predicted that passing would be tough on the 12-turn, 2.3-mile Infineon course, and they were right.
Most changes in position stemmed from pit stops taken at different intervals by teams using different race strategies, and there was only one caution period.
There also was a premium on saving fuel to keep the pit stops to a minimum, a situation that Kanaan said made for uneventful racing.
“I think racing is about going fast, not driving slow,” said Kanaan, a former series champion and Sonoma winner for Andretti Green Racing.
“I did take third place, but if you ask my opinion about my race, it was boring,” he said.
Briscoe, noting that Castroneves had finished in second place seven times this year before reaching Victory Lane, said, “It really was killing him, coming in second all the time. Now he’s got his win. He can relax a little.”
Before the race, Castroneves and Dixon had agreed that the championship was still up for grabs despite Dixon’s lead, and Castroneves said Sunday that “now it’s our momentum” going into the final two races, at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park on Sunday and at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 7.
Castroneves “is really keeping the pressure on Scott,” Briscoe said, adding that he was never given team orders to forgo passing Castroneves on Sunday in order to protect Castroneves’ chances in the championship battle.
But Ganassi, Dixon’s team owner, said he still likes Dixon’s chances to win the title.
“I’d still rather be in my spot than Penske’s,” he said.