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Helio's acquittal and its IRL impact

That is how Team Penske president Tim Cindric found out that his star driver Helio Castroneves would be returning to work on Saturday morning in preparations for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Castroneves' absence wasn't for a mere sick day or even to take his personal car to the shop for repair.

For the past eight weeks, Castroneves has been on trial for federal tax evasion charges in Miami. If convicted, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who became a cultural phenomenon for winning ABC's Dancing with the Stars faced up to six years of prison and deportation back to his native Brazil.

While the details of those charges were complex and laborious and by now well-documented, that was growing concern that Castroneves could expect the worst.

Instead, he got the best news possible -- cleared on all but one count with a hung jury thwarting any hope of a conviction on one count of conspiracy.

That is when the text message alert went off on Cindric's cell phone.

"I'm on my way, man" was the message.

"I texted back, 'I'm ready for you, Hector. Congrats,'" Cindric said. "The news was a lot bigger than winning a race because it had much more far-reaching consequences. A race comes and goes but this was a life decision, there. It was hard to control my enthusiasm while trying to run a car with 10 minutes left in a practice session."

Now that Castroneves has his legal issues behind him, let's examine what it all means to those involved:


In the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. he's "free at last, free at last, glory hallelujah, free at last."

OK, let's not get carried away.

It means Castroneves has the biggest burden of his life lifted from his soul and he can continue at what he does best and that is driving an IndyCar. But the 32-year-old Brazilian is also one of IndyCar's most effervescent and colorful personalities.

To be back in the race car so soon may be considered an arduous task, but Cindric believes it's the best thing possible for the driver to close one chapter of his life while continuing another.

"Helio's best medicine will be to be back in a race car," Cindric said. "I can't tell you how excited I will be to see him in the race car.

"If I hadn't known Helio as well as I do, I would question whether it is the right move. But his focus and concentration is among the best. I put him up against the best of them to be mentally prepared. I have 100 percent confidence to have him back in the race car."

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Don't be surprised to see Castroneves contend for victory in Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Hell, I'll even pick him to win the race. After all, he seems to be on quite a streak. Maybe he should stop off in Las Vegas on his way to Long Beach.

But then, maybe not -- he'd have to pay taxes on his gambling winnings.


The young driver from Australia has all the potential to be a future IndyCar star. But Power knew going into this season that if Castroneves was cleared of his legal woes, he would have to step aside.

Power will get out of the No. 3 IndyCar and into a Verizon Wireless-sponsored No. 12 entry for Saturday's practice and Sunday's race. Team Penske is also committing to running Power in the 93rd Indianapolis 500 on May 24. Beyond that, Power's future is uncertain because Penske Racing would have to find additional sponsorship to run him for the season.

One possibility would be to move Power over to Luczo Dragon Racing, which is co-owned by Roger Penske' s youngest son, Jay. That team currently has rookie driver Raphael Matos in the car as the driver.

"We haven't had that discussion," Cindric said. "Never say never, but right now we haven't prepared for that or talked about it."

Power has mixed emotions. He expressed happiness that Castroneves is freed but has to be personally disappointed that he won't be driving for Team Penske for a full season.

"I can't say enough about Will and the task he has taken," Cindric said. "We will continue to take it a race at a time. Will will tell you it wasn't until last night he knew he would run the Indy 500. He didn't know that going into it. That's a big credit for him to take that approach and the contingencies that he has taken. John Erickson will be the race strategist on that car.

"We didn't want to be in this position this weekend. It all looked like it was leading up to a decision this week."

After Friday's press conference, Power got back into Castroneves' car and continued to drive it in practice. That same car will be turned over to Castroneves on Saturday morning.

"I knew the situation very well," Power said. "None of this is a surprise to me. That is the Penske way. I really appreciate the way it has all played out.

"I've been aware this could happen at any time. My approach was to take it day by day. I was ready for it. It's not big shock for me. The team is great to work with and keep you well informed."


Even without Castroneves, the IndyCar Series would have continued through the year. Friday's crowd at Long Beach was huge because it's the first truly unified Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach since 1995 with practically all of the top names in IndyCar participating.

But for Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George, it brings a tremendous sense of relief.

"I'm happy for him and I hope it all continues to go well," George said. "I'm sure he feels tremendous relief after all he has been through. Hopefully he will be out here tomorrow on the track. The fact that Team Penske brought a third car to Long Beach shows that they've always had the foresight to prepare for things like this.

"This will be great for the series. Everyone has missed him. Everyone has been thinking of him and praying for him. I'm sure he will be happy to be back with all of his mates."


The Federal Government has a 90 percent conviction rate on tax evasion trials. By getting an acquittal, Castroneves beat the odds better than any foe on the race track.


With two laps to go in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, Paul Tracy passed Castroneves as the yellow flag waved for a crash a few hundred yards behind them. Tracy thought he had won the Indy 500, but it was ruled that the pass came after the yellow flag was waved and the yellow light was turned on so Castroneves was declared the winner.

Tracy's team appealed and ultimately lost the appeal when Tony George made the final decision as IndyCar CEO.

On Friday, Tracy was announced that he would be returning to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since that race with his pal, team co-owner Jimmy Vasser, at KV Racing Technologies. The only problem was the announcement came shortly after word that Castroneves was acquitted, sending media members scurrying for reaction.

Tracy was once again upstaged by Castroneves.

"That's a huge deal for Helio," Tracy said. "This has been a heavy-duty thing for him. I'm happy that he got off. I want to compete against the best guys and Helio is one of the best at Indy.

"I think the IndyCar Series is pretty short on personalities. There are a lot of young guys nobody has heard of in this series. Hopefully, I can bring something back to the table."

Vasser believes it's great for the series.

"Absolutely, to have PT and Helio back, that's two great pieces of news today," said Vasser, who announced Tracy to his team. "It's two great positive pieces of information and news for IndyCar racing today."


Hmmm ... I can speak from personal experience on that one. And now, so can Castroneves.