Bruce Martin
Monday April 12th, 2010

LEEDS, Alabama -- Helio Castroneves has always been a driver that stands out in a crowd.

Whether it is climbing the fence after an IndyCar victory, taking the top spot in the Indianapolis 500 an impressive three times, or making all the right moves to win "Dancing with the Stars," Castroneves knows how to grab the spotlight.

But that hasn't been the case during the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Castroneves has largely been overshadowed by his new full-time Penske teammate, Will Power of Australia.

When team owner Roger Penske decided to increase his IndyCar operation, he had three of the best drivers in the series: Ryan Briscoe, Castroneves and Power. But the big question was how well these three drivers would mesh?

It was obvious at the start of the season that Power had the speed and the savvy to win races. He drove to victory in the season-opener at Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 14 and went 2-for-2 with a victory at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 29. But Power's success also meant that Castroneves was slowly being pushed out of the spotlight. The 34-year-old Brazilian driver knew he would have to step up his game in order to keep up with Indy's new powerhouse.

"We just have to stop Will Power," Castroneves said. "He's got too much power. We have to stop that."

While it could have been his need to reclaim the spotlight that drove him to victory at Sunday's Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, in reality it was the superior pit strategy utilized by Castroneves' race strategist Tim Cindric.

When a yellow flag waved on lap 12 after Takuma Sato spun out, Power pitted as the leader while Castroneves decided to stay out and get on a different fuel strategy. Castroneves used a different kind of footwork than the world saw during his "Dancing" days, in order to drive fast enough to keep the lead but slow enough to conserve fuel.

"Certainly Will has been very successful this season," Castroneves said. "He's been very fast. The only way for us to beat and stop Will Power was trying something different. Today was an opportunity for us to do that, and it worked on out perfectly."

And as the IZOD IndyCar Series heads west to one of its biggest races of the season -- the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach -- there is no reason to think that Castroneves won't be one of the top contenders in the biggest street race in the United States. But Castroneves will have a lot to contend with in Power, who won Long Beach in 2008. Power went on to finish fourth while Briscoe's sixth-place finish gave Team Penske three drivers in the top six.

That should set up the battle lines at Long Beach now that Castroneves has returned to victory lane for the 17th time in his IndyCar career, the 23rd win overall counting his days in the former CART series.

And while Power has easily been the most "power-ful" driver this season, Castroneves isn't quite ready to give up his place in the spotlight.

At one time, the thought of staging an IndyCar Series race just 40 miles from a NASCAR staple like Talladega Superspeedway would have seemed ludicrous.

But that was then and this is now, as the weekend race at Barber Motorsports Park was spectacular for the Series, even if the on-track racing was not.

As thousands of fans lined the lush hillsides, the trees in the background could have been the backdrop for "Amen Corner" at Augusta National -- site of The Masters golf tournament, instead of the of the revving engines and high speeds of IndyCar.

This was a European-style road course and the level of enthusiasm by the local community was more than IndyCar could have hoped for.

The three-day total attendance for the inaugural event is estimated at more than 86,000 fans, with about 53,555 fans showing up on race day.

"The attendance more than doubled the largest event ever held here previously at Barber Motorsports Park," said Gene Hallman, president and CEO of Zoom Motorsports, promoters of this weekend's race. "Being the only race on the calendar in the Deep South, we were able to draw a lot of IndyCar fans into Birmingham, which helped us from a tourism perspective."

In two weeks, NASCAR fans will return to Talladega for their twice-a-year-pilgrimage to the grim spectacle where drivers cheat death in a ridiculous form of racing known as "restrictor-plate" where the hazards are increased exponentially with the speeding cars running in one tight pack.

But the setting was much more pastoral on Sunday as the crowd watched Marco Andretti run away from the field, only to give up the lead eight laps from the finish, in order to have enough fuel to make it to the checkered flag. That allowed Helio Castroneves to claim his 17th IndyCar Series victory and the 23rd of his career.

The fans came early and stayed late and that made this first-time event a big hit among the IndyCar drivers.

"To be here today and see the crowd, if you see that crowd, it was bloody amazing," said driver Dario Franchitti of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "That was pretty cool."

Franchitti's teammate Scott Dixon was equally impressed by the support of the Alabama race fans.

"I think you could say from the get go when we had the first open test here, we had over 10,000 people," Dixon said. "When we test privately, you can probably count two or three people. Just to see they had the enthusiasm to come out. Today I went over to the back section to do a thing for Firestone and over in the fan part over there it was packed. It was fantastic to see."

Former NBA star and Leeds-native Charles Barkley served as grand marshal of the race and was amazed at the biggest sporting spectacle to hit his hometown.

"I'm a racing fan and have followed a few of the guys and girl (Danica Patrick)," said Barkley, who visited several race teams including Team Penske and KV Racing Technology. "It takes a lot of courage to go out there and race at more than 200 mph. This event is great for Birmingham, great for Leeds and great for Alabama. I've been at Barber Motorsports Park a few times before, but I've never seen so many fans."

When NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee, the conventional wisdom was that Hamlin had been dealt a devastating blow to his hopes of competing for a championship in 2010. After all, this is the type of injury that sidelines other athletes for an entire season.

Hamlin was expected to start last Saturday night's race at Phoenix International Raceway before climbing out of the car at the first pit stop and turning the wheel over to relief driver Casey Mears.

But things didn't go as planned, even after Hamlin fell two laps down for an early-race spin. He would continue to stay behind the wheel of his Toyota for the duration of the race, finishing 30th.

While racing through the pain may not have been the smartest move, Hamlin showed a commendable determination and commitment to his team.

"I was going to do all I could do," Hamlin said. "I reached a point, probably 160 laps in I looked at the scoreboard to see how much more time I had to stay in there and that's about the time we went about two laps down. I knew that if I got out of the car, I was going to hear all kinds of stuff from everyone else saying I gave up on the team. That's one thing I'm not going to do is give up on these guys."

Hamlin didn't strain his knee until he got into the car to start the race. He had fluid drained from the knee beforehand, but had more on his mind wrestling with his race car than feeling the pain.

"We had a lot more issues than my leg today," Hamlin said. "We had a subpar car and we just killed ourselves trying to change -- we had electrical problems. To be honest with you, I would have been too embarrassed to give Casey (Mears) the car I had today. It's not what we're accustomed to."

But Hamlin was able to endure through the pain and that is what makes him a throwback to the old days of NASCAR when drivers raced through pain to show their toughness.

Either that or they didn't know any better. The same could probably be said for Hamlin.

"Seems like it's our luck this year. We're a tough team -- we'll keep digging." -- NASCAR driver Kyle Busch, who looked like a sure winner at Phoenix only to finish eighth when his team decided to change four tires instead of two. That placed him too far back in the field to make up the distance in the final two-lap dash to the checkered flag.

"I thought Kyle (Busch) stole one last night, so he's just even now. It's racing, man. It's racing all the way up until the checkered flag falls. You never know what happens. That's why fans love the sport and the strategy and the drama and what's going to happen and how teams play it out. Four tires, two tires, no tires. I'm surprised that there wasn't a guy that went out there with no tires just to see. There were 24 cars in the lead lap; it's like why wouldn't you? Some guys just don't take that risk, and I was glad that they didn't tonight." -- Ryan Newman after his team changed two tires and then sped past Jeff Gordon to win Saturday night's NASCAR race at Phoenix.

There are two major events on the auto racing schedule this weekend. While NASCAR Sprint Cup heads to the massive Texas Motor Speedway -- the fastest track on the schedule -- expect to see the unusual at a track where strange things have been known to happen. While NASCAR is in Texas, the IZOD IndyCar Series heads to Southern California for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Throngs of fans makes this race one of the true social events of the season.

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