Rick Mears won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1991 in his 14th start. It took A.J. Foyt, the first driver to win four at Indy, 20 starts and Al Unser 22.
Helio Castroneves has the opportunity to become the fourth driver to win four at Indy in Sunday's 100 year anniversary race. It will be his 11th start.
"Doing it in that short time frame is a testament to how good he is around here, being able to get the job done, do things that are necessary when they're necessary," Mears said. "He's the leading candidate to become the first five-time winner. He's got that capability, and if he keeps doing his job the way he's been doing it, he's got a great opportunity to be the first to five."
Castroneves became the first to win Indy in his rookie and second seasons (2001, 2002) and took his third in 2009. He was ninth last year, leading only three laps after starting from his fourth pole. Castroneves has only one finish out of the top nine, 25th when he was involved in a crash in 2006.
He almost won three in a row, finishing second to Penske Racing teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003, and he's been in the top four in six of his 10 starts.
They've all been with Penske, Indy's all-time victory leader with 15.
"I think he has a great feel for the track itself," said Penske Racing President Tim Cindric, who has been Castroneves' race strategist for his 10 500s. "His driving style is something that is unique. Most importantly, he's come to understand what this race means, how important this race is. He has an appreciation for the atmosphere."
The magnitude of Indianapolis creates a grand divide with the rest of the IndyCar schedule. Even with the 500 schedule shortened in recent years, it's two weeks long rather than two or three days like other events. For Castroneves, the time and focus spent at Indianapolis separates him from a difficult start to the season. He's 17th in the points after four races in which he's crashed with more frequency than at any time in his career, including taking out teammate Will Power at Long Beach.
Castroneves can transform his season from troubled to tremendous with a contending run at Indianapolis. Winning his fourth would click it up to great, no matter what happens the rest of 2011.
"When you come here, it's a championship apart," Castroneves said. "Even though it's part of the championship, it's Indianapolis, it's the race that you want to do well the most. Plus, it's a new phase to the season, it's the first oval. We've been on street races and it's tight. I'm glad to be back."
Castroneves qualified in 16th position, the inside of the sixth row in the three-wide starting formation at Indy. It's his farthest from the front at Indy. He started 11th in 2001 and 13th in 2002. Castroneves had run the fastest lap the previous day, dubbed Fast Friday, at 228.611 mph, but his four-lap qualifying run fell to 225.216.
Castroneves knows there's no reason for alarm. The circumstances of qualifying and practice are substantially different. Fast Friday is closer to race conditions, large groups of cars on the track and running in a draft. In qualifying, cars are on the track alone. And famously fickle weather conditions at Indy were at work.
"The track definitely changed for us from yesterday to today, [but it's] the same for everyone," Castroneves said. "The wind was a big factor. We took a chance to be a little bit more conservative, and it didn't pay off. But, hey, it's not always that we get it right."
Qualifying is four laps, the race is 200 with seven or eight pit stops.
It's time and distance in a 220 mph environment for Castroneves and his team to adjust the Pennzoil/Shell Dallara-Honda. Dan Wheldon won from 16th starting position in 2005 in the same car-engine formula as this year. Al Unser, driving for Penske, won in 1987 starting from 20th.
Castroneves has won from 13th and 11th and he didn't have the experience he has now. It's better to start from the front, but selecting the correct strategy can get you to the front when you need to be there. Castroneves knows he can win from 16th.
"Absolutely," Castroneves said. "This place, it's incredible. Sometimes [starting farther back] plays in your favor and sometimes it doesn't."
Castroneves worked his way to the front in 2001, leading the final 52 laps.
In 2002, Cindric made a bold call not to pit and to try to save fuel and Castroneves was able to stay in front and get to the checkered flag in his controversial victory over Paul Tracy. In 2009, Castroneves fell behind Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, but when they had pit stop mistakes, took the lead for the final 59 laps.
"In 2001, Helio was consistent, we had great pit stops and the race came to us," Cindric said. "In 2002, it was Gil's [de Ferran] race to win and he had an issue with a loose wheel in the pits. Helio and I stayed out. It was our only chance to run up front. I think we were running ninth and decided to roll the dice. I was figuring we'd be leading the race and Gil would be second."
Castroneves was fast in 2002 once in the lead.
"I guess it was clean air," he said. "The car came alive. I was managing the fuel, letting some backmarkers pass me. I was half throttle the entire race track. I found a way to save enough fuel."
Tracy, with more fuel was coming fast going into the final laps.
"I went full throttle on the [next-to-last lap]," Castroneves said. "The car was there when we needed it."
On the final lap, with Tracy pressuring Castroneves entering Turn Three, there was a crash in the short chute between Turns One and Two. The yellow caution light came on and Castroneves lifted. Tracy passed him on the outside in Turn Three, but it was ruled to have come after the caution began.
"Certainly, it was my day," Castroneves said.
By 2009, Castroneves had learned patience pays off at Indianapolis, a practice Penske Racing adviser Mears used in his career.
"Helio drove a very smart race," Cindric said. "We waited until it was our turn. We didn't dominate all day, sat back there patiently. It was great execution."
Mears sees the similarities between his approach and Castroneves'. "Obviously, he's very smooth and he has a good feel for the car," Mears said. "He knows what he wants and how to help the [team] get it there. He rarely makes a mistake. The No. 1 priority is to finish and he's great at that. He's been good at biding his time and knowing when to press and when not to press. That's very important at Indianapolis. He has his priorities right."
Castroneves goes into every Indy 500 with the same goal as the rest of the 33 starters, to win. But he's the only driver going into this year's race whose picture is on the Borg-Warner Trophy three times.
"I don't think about winning for the fourth time," Castroneves said. "I just think about what I can do to accomplish the goal of winning it this year. My focus is on the race."