LONG POND, Pa. — Greetings from the Poconos! I can’t help but notice how thick the air around here is this week, like you could cut it with a knife. Now that could be because of the high heat and humidity, which is expected to hang around for Sunday’s big race here—the ABC Supply 500. But more likely it’s because Sunday’s race, which airs at 2 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network, is the second-to-last race of the season for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Two to go! Two to go! And then we crown a new champion. The tension is off the charts.
Rest assured, though, it hasn’t gotten to me. I’m pretty much the same as I was at the beginning of the season, relaxed and optimistic. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m sitting in fourth place in the points standings—58 behind the leader, my Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. And that gap isn’t nearly as wide as it seems. If my No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet is fast and catches a few breaks, we could close that gap to single digits. Next weekend’s season finale at Sonoma counts for double the points. I like where we are—right in the mix.
This weekend’s race is a bit of a transition on the IndyCar schedule. We move from road courses, which we ran two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio, to ovals. To prepare, my team did some testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—which, like Pocono, is 2½ miles long. Our session was great. It really got me back into the oval rhythm and feeling confident about my prospects here. Now you might say, But Helio, Indy is a rectangular four-corner oval while Pocono is a three-turn triangle. What can you take from the first circuit and apply to the second?
Well, also like Indy, Pocono is a flat track with long straightaways. That means the speeds we’re going to achieve will be super high. In fact, the two tracks are so alike that, in the past, we’ve been able to get away with using similar setups at both places. The reason why those setups haven’t been exactly the same is because of Pocono’s first corner, which carries a banking of 14 degrees. That’s five degrees steeper than any of Indy’s turns and six to eight degrees steeper than Pocono’s other two turns. I guess that’s why they call it the tricky triangle!
Still, my team is getting closer to solving it. Last year we finished second here, which was amazing. I remember we didn’t have a very fast car. Most of the day we drifted between third and fifth place, right in that range. As soon as we had some yellow flags, we were able to make some moves. And the car handled so well in traffic that we were able to pull off some moves there, too. One of them was over my teammate Will Power, which is no surprise, given how we’re always going back and forth, always battling. It’s always in the spirit of good fun and competition. Right now, I’m just a point ahead of him in the standings. He is just an outstanding driver. I give him a lot of credit for making me better.
Juan Pablo gets some of that credit, too. He dominated the race here last year, which has to be making him feel good going into this weekend—especially after placing 11th at Mid-Ohio. I finished even lower, in 15th place. My big thing for that race was qualifying. Because passing there is so difficult, we had to start high on the grid to give ourselves a winning chance—and we did just that, landing a spot on the second row, in fourth. When we climbed to third early in the race, it seemed as if our strategy was going to pay off. But then with Juan Pablo, Will and I inside the top five with 15 laps to go, Sage Karam spun out, prompting a yellow flag. The timing was just terrible. The yellow threw off our pit strategies, forcing us back around for servicing after our main rivals in the championship race—Ganassi’s Scott Dixon (third) and Graham Rahal (second) of Rahal Letterman Lanigan—had already topped off their cars.
Some have called Sage’s spin an intentional move to help Scott, his Ganassi teammate, get to the front. And to that Juan Pablo, with his barbed Colombian tongue, said: “Karma’s a bitch, so we’ll see.” But the view was different where I sat. I was on the radio with my team debating whether to duck in for a quick fix-up when Sage lost control. [Ed note: IndyCar quickly cleared the rookie of suspicion.] Those things are out of our hands. What I liked was that we had a competitive car.
To make it a championship-winning car, however, we can’t be afraid to take some risks this week. I mean, I’ve been here—on the title bubble with two to go—in just about every year of my 19-year career but four. That includes 1998, my rookie season, and 2001, the year we came over to IndyCar from CART! Some years I was leading the points race, the hunted. The last few years I’ve been hunting. Every year, I went home without a championship. The only way that changes is by us taking a chance, whether we’re leading or in the pack—in which case we can’t be shy about taking more chances. The main this weekend is to be bold but not stupid. There’s still a double points race to run, after all.
Being conservative didn’t pay off in the past. Why would it now? My car is fast and my team is focused. The time to make a move is now. Let’s turn up the heat.
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