LEXINGTON, OHIO—Greetings from the Heartland! Rumor has it there’s a big road course race going on down here this Sunday, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (which airs at 1:30 p.m. Eastern on CNBC). They say it’s the third race left on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule for this year, which is incredible to me. The time is just flying by! So much has happened in the last couple of weeks since we talked. Let me get you up to speed.
Two weeks ago, of course, there was the oval race at Milwaukee. It was the only race of the season so far where everything happens on a Sunday. We’re talking about practice, qualifying, the race—everything. In my career—and I’ve been doing this for two decades—I don’t remember there being so much to do in such a small space of time during an event that was not a doubleheader. You could say that the condensed schedule threw me and my teammates on the No. 3 Hitachi Chevy for a loop.
On a standard race weekend, we would have half an hour before qualifying to get the car turned around. That weekend, however, there were only 15 minutes. Now I say all this not to make excuses, but just to explain why we wound up being 15 minutes late to the grid: We were operating on standard time. This cost us a chance to qualify and forced us to start from the back. That’s a real tough spot to be in at a track like Milwaukee, a flat oval that requires a lot of technical precision.
We could’ve gotten down about our tardiness. Instead, we decided to make up for lost time. I told my team, Look, we have a good car. Now let’s go out and prove it. Boy did we ever. Not only was the car consistent, but our strategy was very good— especially on the pit laps, where we were able to take positions in chunks.
In all, it ended up being a really good day for us. We finished second, a huge (HUGE!) result for us considering where we started. I’d like to think we could’ve caught up with the No. 11 of Sébastien Bourdais, but he was the class of the field. I don’t know what he had under that hood—well, I know it was a Chevy—but for sure he was very, very stable and denied us our first win of the season.
We had every reason to believe it would come the following week, at Iowa. Despite our awesome recovery at Milwaukee, we were determined not to make things difficult on ourselves again. We got off to a great start—on the pole, for the 45th time in my career—and led 50 laps. We were having our moment in the sun!
And then the sun went away and took our feel for the car with it. The adjustments that we were making and hitting on in the early part of the race, when the track was so much hotter, suddenly seemed to make the car worse. On the restarts in particular, I felt like I was getting knocked around. I tried, on the move, to fix the car with the tools I have at my disposal inside the cockpit but there wasn’t much I could do. By then, of course, the race had tightened up and everyone had elevated their game. When my chances of landing on the podium vanished, the goal became to finish in the top six. When that became too far-fetched, we targeted the top 10.
We had a shot at it near the end of the race. There was just one man I had to beat for it, my Penske teammate Will Power—and he wasn’t giving any ground. Again and again I’d try to pass him, and each time he’d cut me off. So after the race—which I finished 11th, right behind him—I started calling him Will “Chopper” Power. It was all in good fun, and our inside joke helped take the edge off of what turned out to be quite a rough day.
If only all tensions on the track could be diffused so easily. The beef between Ed Carpenter and Sage Karam comes to mind. Ed got so hot with Karam, whom he thought was crowding him on the outside lane while they were battling for third place late in the race, that he shook his fist at him and flashed a far from family friendly salute. Afterward, Ed accused Sage of driving recklessly. (Sage’s response: “This ain’t go-karts no more.”) But realistically, it wasn’t only Sage. It was everybody. There was a lot of wild driving, a lot of people staring into the mirrors—NASCAR-type of driving. But I didn’t see it as a breach of a gentlemen’s agreement, which we stuck to at Texas and then didn’t at Fontana. Why?
Simple: At Texas, you only have one lane. Whoever has the better car could go high or low. Fontana and Iowa, because of the banking and everybody’s cars being so much stickier thanks to the new aero package, they’re able to run inside and outside. Instead of guys just picking a lane and not looking back, guys bob and weave and stare into their mirrors trying to screw the guy behind them. Is it right? Is it wrong? No, it’s just the byproduct of the new aero package. We’ve just got to adapt to the new normal.
It’ll be interesting to see if this pattern continues at Mid-Ohio, a road circuit that changes quite a lot because of the grip level—so much so that it requires drivers to be in constant communication with their team about the conditions. It’s difficult to say what the track is going to do on Sunday. The forecast is calling for 83-degree temperatures and 40 percent chance of thundershowers. We’ve come here before and done well (two wins, three other podiums). But lately? Not so much.
That ends this weekend. It has to. We've been competitive in every race this season: road courses, street courses, ovals. The Hitachi Chevy has been very fast. We’ve had good results in the past, and I know we can have them again.
We are only 54 points behind my Team Penske teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, for the points lead. With three races remaining, including the double points finale at Sonoma Raceway, that is easily attainable. Right now there are 13 drivers who still have a shot at the championship, so we are right in the thick of it. A win this weekend would be the boost we need to make a push for the title.
Nine drivers have won the season’s first 13 races. That’s a lot of change on the top step of the podium for the Verizon IndyCar Series. I want to make sure we get our turn. If it comes down to the last three races, trust me, I won’t mind repeating. To be honest, I don’t have much to lose right now. Except time, of course.
Helio Castroneves is the only man in history to have won the Indy 500 three times and Dancing with the Stars at least once. Check out his website, www.heliocastroneves.com, and follow him on Twitter, @h3lio.