More than once this month, and again at the end of the Indianapolis 500, Helio Castroneves called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway "magical." Perhaps, but the past five weeks have identified a true Merlin. All Castroneves has done in the past 37 days is beat the federal government off the track and take down every challenge in May on the track at Indy, the month and the place for legends in open-wheel racing. Sunday was the final triumph — his third win in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing — but at the rate the 34-year-old Brazilian has beaten the odds lately, was there any doubt? "Once I got in the front, it was, 'Never look back,' " said Castroneves, a Coral Gables resident. "What a day. This is the best month of May ever." Castroneves, who delivered car owner Roger Penske his record-extending 15th win at the Brickyard (no other owner has more than five), rode around off the pace for much of the 93rd 500. After he led the first six laps from the pole, two Chip Ganassi Racing teammates and winner of the previous two 500s,
Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, paced 123 of the next 134 laps.
But on a yellow-flag pit stop on Lap 134, the No. 3 crew — the same group that won Indy's Pit Stop Challenge on Friday — returned Castroneves to the track in second after he came down pit road in fourth.
On the subsequent restart, Castroneves' Dallara-Honda — the car that landed on the pole two weeks earlier — found its best gear and blew past Dixon on Lap 142 for a lead it never relinquished.
Castroneves was tearful as he pulled into Victory Lane and again as he took the traditional bottle of milk.
St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon finished second for Panther Racing, and Danica Patrick was third. When Patrick was asked if her Andretti Green Racing entry had anything to offer the Penske car, she queried back.
"I don't know what Helio was doing, what speeds was he doing out front?" Patrick said.
"220s (mph laps)," came the answer.
"Oh, no," Patrick said, smiling "I'm doing 218 and a half and I'm like, 'Yeah, this is pretty good, flat out without lifting.' If he was doing 220 in the lead, then I had a feeling I had the same thing as Dan did."
What they had wasn't enough at the end, nor for the month.
Castroneves came to Indianapolis already walking on air, having beaten the feds on a tax evasion rap that destroyed his offseason and start of the IndyCar series season. A guilty verdict could have sent him to prison for years, and ruined his racing legacy and reputation as a happy champion of everything from Indy to Dancing With the Stars.
A jury found him not guilty of most charges April 17 in Miami (a final conspiracy charge was thrown out Friday). On April 18 he emerged across the country in Long Beach, Calif., racing again for Team Penske. He finished seventh on the street course two days after the acquittal, then took second at Kansas Speedway.
On the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval, he was as smooth as ever. The 2001-02 winner put his car on the pole, then kept near the top of the speed charts all month.
The prevailing story line was Castroneves and Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe against the Ganassi teammates. Those four claimed the entire front row and four of the top five qualifying positions. As it turned out, they combined to lead all 200 laps.
One by one, three faded away. Briscoe, shortly after leading Laps 53-63, claimed to get a bad set of tires on a pit stop. He plummeted to eighth on a restart, came back in for new tires and had to fight uphill the rest of the way. He got back to second on short-fuel stops late in the race but the misfortunes caught up in the end. He finished 15th.
Franchitti was second until a Lap 134 stop when he tried to pull out of the pits before the fuel hose was detached; he came out eighth and finished seventh. Dixon, 20 laps after Castroneves blew past him for the lead, lost several places on a slow pit stop and fell out of the hunt. The defending champ took sixth.
All that was left standing was a fence-climbing magician.
"It's worked out," owner Penske said. "I think the payoff today is not only for him but for everybody on this team that never, never blinked an eye."