Thursday May 21st, 2009

He is back at his favorite track in the world, driving a tan minivan through the twilight in the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It's early May, the grandstands are empty, and Helio Castroneves is acting as if he doesn't have a care in the world. He rolls through a stop sign. He makes a sharp U-turn in front of a police officer. He parks his eight-passenger car, which will be filled this weekend with his friends from around the globe and his family from Brazil, in front of the Brickyard Crossing restaurant, joking that he's taking the spot reserved for Tony George, the owner of the famed 2.5-mile track.

Castroneves hops out and is greeted by a throng of his most ardent fans, who have been waiting over an hour for him. As flashbulbs pop in his face, a 40-something woman approaches.

"I've kissed you twice before races, and each time you've gone on to the Indy 500," she tells Castroneves. "Can I have one more? It will be for good luck."

"Hey, I've already had enough good luck to last a lifetime this year," Castroneves replies. "It's like my birthday is everyday ... I'd love to give you a kiss."

Yes, Castroneves is feeling good these days. Less than two months after being acquitted of tax evasion charges -- if he had been found guilty, he could have received a six-year prison sentence and been deported -- Castroneves is the prohibitive favorite to win Sunday's Indy 500. He and his Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe have dominated the speed charts during May. Castroneves captured the pole -- the third of his career at Indy -- and as long as he doesn't have problems on pit road or any mechanical issues, he'll be the driver to beat as the laps wind down.

I spent a few days with Castroneves earlier this month for a feature story that appears in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated. What struck me most was how much he's changed since he was charged. "I'm a different person now," he told me. "I'm not as trusting, that's for sure. But I'm also much more thankful for what I have. My family is everything to me. Without them, I never would have made it through that experience ... I want to win this race so badly for them. It would be like me paying them back."

Castroneves is different on the track as well. He's always been one of the more aggressive drivers on the IndyCar circuit, but since his return he's been, from my perspective, the most aggressive driver in the series, attacking nearly every lap like it's qualifying. I spoke to Roger Penske, Castroneves' team owner, about this, and he voiced concern, saying that he hopes Castroneves' aggression won't be his undoing on race day.

But Penske is simply happy to have Castroneves back behind the wheel. He stuck with him during the ordeal, telling the Brazilian that his ride would be waiting for him if he was acquitted of the charges. At the time, that looked like a long shot. After all, the federal government has a conviction rate of 90 to 95 percent in tax evasion cases. But this was a supremely complex case. I asked David Garvin, Castroneves' attorney, to explain the core issues to me in the most rudimentary way possible. Twenty-eight minutes later, he stopped talking.

After studying the case for a few days, my take on it is this: The only thing Castroneves was guilty of was being ignorant of the tax laws. In other words, I don't think his sister Kati Castroneves, his attorney Alan Miller or Castroneves himself intentionally did anything wrong. And this, in effect, is what the jury found.

So now Castroneves is back at his best track, gunning for what would be the most significant win of his career. Given how he's performed thus far in May at Indy, I think it'll be an upset if he doesn't win. He'll be swigging the milk on Sunday.

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