The big three- Castroneves goes for third straight Indy 500 win
Sunday, May 25, 2003
INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves doesn't even try to be coy.
He knows what's at stake today when he goes for his third straight Indianapolis 500 win.
"I have a chance to make some history," he said. "Not many people get this kind of chance. This place if full of great drivers and heroes for many years, and maybe I can become part of that."
Castroneves is only the fifth driver to get the chance at three in a row at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he knows how difficult it's likely to be.
The Brazilian is the favorite after winning the pole, but the 33-car field is loaded with contenders.
"Man, I was looking at the lineup the other day and I kept saying, 'He could win it. He could win it.' I got up to about 12 guys and stopped. I didn't want to scare myself," Castroneves said, laughing.
As popular as a Castroneves victory would be, the sentimental favorite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be Michael Andretti.
The winningest active driver in American open-wheel history will retire after today's 200-lap race. After the checkered flag falls, he will focus on running Andretti Green Racing, the team he bought last fall.
After coming up short in 13 previous tries here, the 40-year-old Andretti would love to end his racing career with his 43rd career victory, joining his father, 1969 winner Mario Andretti, on the speedway's Borg Warner Trophy.
"As far as I'm concerned in my mind right now, this is not my last race," Michael said. "I'm just focused right and not even thinking about that.
"But, once the race is over, I'm looking forward to a new challenge," he said. Michael is retiring 14 years earlier than his father.
Two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr., who will start 17th, is Andretti's longtime friend and rival.
"My career and Michael's have really been parallel right from the start," Unser said. "But this is where it stops, I guess. Mikey is doing what he feels is right for him and I'm six months older, but I'm going to still be racing for a long time."
The oldest driver in the field at 41, Unser is appearing in his first Indy 500 since his battle with alcoholism became public last summer.
Andretti, whose family's hard luck at Indy has become almost legendary, actually has four chances to win today, with Tony Kanaan, Robby Gordon and rookie Dan Wheldon also representing Andretti Green in the race.
"I'd be over the moon if I win it, but I'll be just as happy if one of them wins it," Andretti said. "Whichever car wins, we all win."
Kanaan and Gordon will join Castroneves in starting from the first of 11 three-car rows.
Kanaan, who gave Andretti his first win as a car-owner earlier this season in Phoenix, was leading the 500 after 89 laps a year ago as a rookie but slid through oil on the track and crashed.
Gordon has five top-10 finishes in eight starts here, including a fourth in 1999 when he had the bitter disappointment of having to pit for fuel while leading a lap from the end.
The NASCAR Winston Cup regular faces a difficult tough task today, racing in the 500 and in NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C.
It's the fourth time Gordon has tried to run all 1,100 miles on the same day, although the first attempt in 1997 was washed away by rain that postponed the 500 until Monday.
Two years ago, the former open-wheel star ran in both races, but a rain delay caused him to miss the start of the NASCAR event.
Last year, it all came together as Gordon finished eighth at Indy despite a pit fire, then flew to North Carolina in time for the start and wound up 16th, a lap down.
The only other drivers to do "The Double" are John Andretti (1994) and Tony Stewart (1999, 2001). Defending Winston Cup champion Stewart, who is not racing at Indy this year, is the only one to finish all 1,100 miles.
"People keep asking me if I'm worn out yet," Gordon said Thursday after the final Indy practice. "Yeah, it's been very busy this month, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It has been so much fun for me to go back and forth between the Indy car and the Chevy on the Cup side.
"I want to win both races and we know we can do it. I've got the right people and equipment lined up," added Gordon, who is filling in for the injured Dario Franchitti.
Among the other race favorites are 1999 winner Kenny Brack, Indy Racing League points leader Scott Sharp, Castroneves' Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran; and Jimmy Vasser, the only driver from the rival CART series in the Indy lineup this year.
Bruno Junqueira and Paul Tracy, CART stars who raced here last May, did not try to qualify this year.
Junqueira started from the pole in 2002 but went out with a blown engine. Tracy challenged Castroneves at the end and wound up losing in a disputed finish.
Tracy was catching leader Castroneves when a crash brought out a yellow flag with just over one lap to go. Under IRL rules, that freezes the positions.
Tracy and his car owner, Barry Green, insisted the Canadian driver had passed Castroneves just before the caution came out, but the Brazilian got to the finish line first, and race officials declared him the winner.
A protest and a subsequent appeal to the IRL were denied.
Castroneves shrugs off the messy ending.
"I was leading and I know I won the race. That's over. We have another race to win," he said.
Brack said it will be more difficult for Castroneves or de Ferran to add to team owner Roger Penske's record Indy victory total of 12.
"There are a lot of cars that are very closely matched," said Brack, a former IRL champion.
"It's going to be a little bit of 'follow the leader,' I suspect, for a while. From what I've seen, a lot of cars are similar in speed. It's going to be a tough race to win."
Sunday is an important day for Toyota and Honda, both supplying engines to IRL teams for the first time. The Japanese auto giants are bitter rivals on the track and on the street, and a win here would be a major coup.
Toyota has an edge with 14 entries in the lineup, including Castroneves. Honda has nine, including Kanaan and Gordon. The rest of the field is powered by Chevrolets.
With all-new engines mandated by the IRL this season, Chevy, which propelled Sam Hornish Jr. to the last two IRL championships, has been trying to catch its new rivals. Hornish, who has finished no better than 14th in three Indy starts, is considered Chevy's best hope.
He was the fastest Chevy qualifier, starting 18th. With the General Motors engines at an obvious power disadvantage, there's not a lot of optimism in the Panther Racing camp.
"If he wins the race this year with what he has to work with, they should rename this place after him," team owner John Barnes said.
A concern for everyone in the lineup is that none of the new engines have had to race for 500 miles.
With the IRL teams having to bear the costs of all-new engines and chassis for 2003, as well as a dearth of sponsors because of the faltering U.S. economy, there were barely enough car-driver combinations to fill the field.
Other veterans in the field include 1996 winner Buddy Lazier and his younger brother, Jaques, starting side-by-side in the seventh row, and Alex Barron, last year's fourth-place finisher, in the ninth row.
Nine rookies are scattered through the lineup, including Scott Dixon and Wheldon, starting from the second row, and Tora Takagi and Tony Renna in row three.
"I think the rookie field is very, very strong," said de Ferran, a two-time CART champion starting his third Indy 500. "I guess Nigel Mansell was a rookie at one time, even though he was a world champion when he came here."
The first-year contingent also includes Roger Yasukawa, Shinji Nakano, Buddy Rice, Vitor Meira and A.J. Foyt IV, grandson of the first four-time Indy winner.
Foyt, who turns 19 today, is the youngest Indy starter on record.