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Castroneves' whirlwind weekend ends in style at Long Beach


LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Helio Castroneves admits this past weekend was all a blur.

It began with his acquittal on federal income tax evasion charges Friday afternoon. What followed was a flight from Miami to Long Beach, where Castroneves was up at 4 a.m. Saturday, and back in his IndyCar later that morning.

Despite spinning and crashing in the semifinal round of IndyCar's unique knockout qualifying process, Castroneves started eighth on Sunday and finished seventh in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Though, mentally and emotionally exhausted from his six-month legal ordeal, Castroneves couldn't stop smiling. As he spoke to a group of reporters after the race, David Garvin, the Miami attorney who was instrumental in Castroneves' acquittal, stood a few feet away, sporting a proud smile of his own.

"It has been a blur for me, too," Garvin said of the last three days. "From start to finish. But it was completely worth it. The last seven weeks were the most stressful. But in the end, the right things fell into place and justice was served. Helio never lost his faith in the system, and came out on top where he belongs."

Garvin was stunned to see his client make such a rapid return to the race car after a six-month layoff.

"It's shocking," Garvin said. "During the year, we got permission to let him go to Australia and [race last] October. We had faith putting him on the track today was not a dangerous situation -- that he would be up to the task. But what he's gone through the last seven weeks, no human should have to go through. When he got into first place today, it was like a dream come true."

Castroneves did not realize Garvin was standing behind him when he finished a television interview. When he turned around, the Brazilian's smile grew even bigger. "I didn't even know you were here," he said.

Garvin replied, "Where else would I be?"

"Thank you so much," Castroneves said.

Despite the legal victory, Castroneves has endured a financial burden because of his legal fees.

"The people that review the cases and give approval have to take into consideration not only the emotional strain but the financial strain," Garvin said. "Even if you win there is no system for reimbursements. And most people can't afford to defend themselves in an adequate fashion."

As a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Castroneves had the financial means to get the best legal defense. But the ordeal has scarred him.

"I think it will sink in when I go back home," he said. "The first reaction [when the trial ended] was I just wanted to come to Long Beach and see all my friends, colleagues and you guys. I want to be talking here -- you know me, I like to talk. But for six month, I was not able to talk. That was a lot of torture. I don't think I'll ever forget. That scar is going to make me appreciate things I never appreciated in the past."

Castroneves enjoyed tremendous support from the racing community, and not just by the fact that he was back in a car so quickly.

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"We won one of the biggest races we've ever had to get Helio back in this car," said Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history. "We've stayed together as a team for many months. We talked about this when it started and stayed in touch during this ordeal. To see him walk out and get in the No. 3 car is amazing."

It was an emotional weekend for Castroneves, who is an emotional guy to begin with. Eventually, the emotions were too much to control, and they bubbled over when he spoke at the formal press conference for the first time on Saturday.

"It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare," Castroneves said as he broke down and cried. "Everybody knows I'm a pretty emotional guy. So many people sent messages and sent prayers through the internet to my website. I never lost faith. Sometimes I've questioned it, but those prayers people were sending me kept me really strong and focused. Without the prayers, it would have been hard to go through. The guy upstairs will not let me down and he did not let me down.

With that, Castroneves said it's time to turn the page, but not before dropping one more detail: He's ready to write a book.

Hopefully that book won't be about financial advice.

Paul Tracy is returning to the Indianapolis 500 seven years after losing a race he believes he won.

Tracy made what appeared to be the winning pass when he drove by race leader Castroneves with two laps to go back in '02, but the pass was wiped out because IndyCar Series officials ruled it came after the yellow light was turned on for a crash in Turn 2.

Castroneves was declared the winner and Tracy's team at that time -- Team Green -- appealed. Indy Racing League CEO Tony George ruled on the appeal and gave the win to Castroneves.

Tracy, a popular 40-year-old Canadian who was one of the best drivers in CART and Champ Car, will drive for his old pal Jimmy Vasser at KV Racing Technologies at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Seven years later, Tracy's feelings about the '02 race haven't changed. When asked if he would be taking a "refresher course" during the Rookie Orientation Program, Tracy was quick with a comeback.

"We're not going to take the Rookie Orientation Program -- I don't think they let past winners do that there," Tracy said.

Tracy has been the only driver left out of unification. He was held to a contract by Champ Car team owner Gerald Forsythe, which kept him from landing an IndyCar ride in 2008.

"I've wanted to run but the opportunity hasn't been there," Tracy said. "It's tough walking around here after running at Long Beach 18 years in a row. Someone asked me what it's like to be at Long Beach. To be honest, it's like watching somebody sleep with your wife. It's not a good feeling. That's why I don't show up to a lot of races. It's too hard to stomach."

Tracy still has supreme confidence and competitive fire, and he believes he would be an instant hit if given an IndyCar Series ride.

"Well, as I was laying on the couch watching the disaster of a race at St. Pete, I felt like I could get out there and clean everybody's clock, the way they were driving," Tracy said of the IndyCar opener. "So from that standpoint I feel I've still got the skills to do this. Like I said, my last race -- you can only judge somebody on their last race -- I came, I got off the couch and finished in the top five."

With Tracy's one-race arrangement, it allows the driver to put all of his efforts into victory at Indy.

"We're only going there to win," he said. "I already know what it feels like not to get the winner's trophy. Nothing else really matters to me other than winning the race. Finishing second, third, fourth is really not an option in my book. So that's what we're going to try to do."

Paul Tracy not having a full-time ride in the IndyCar series is a joke. This guy not only has talent, but also has personality -- something IndyCar needs. With his spiked haircut, tattoos and piercings, Tracy can connect with the youthful crowd, even though he's 40.

IndyCar needs a driver to wear the black hat, and Tracy is just the guy to do it.

In Jim Michaelian's mind, "Happy Days are Here Again" at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Michaelian is the president of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, and has been involved in all 35 races through the city's streets. After huge crowds attended all three days of the first "unified" LBGP since 1995, Michaelian announced an estimated crowd of 175,000.

"It was a great weekend," he said. "It was beautiful weather, the racing was spectacular and the fans were excited. You could sense it just in the mood and the energy. Unification meant a great deal and there were a lot of people who had been here for a long time and remember the stars that competed here before that helped get the familiarity here."

It's the fans that make this event special, and Michaelian believes crowd size has nearly returned to where it was before the split in 1996. It's a positive trend Michaelian predicts will continue.

With drivers like Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick, Dan Wheldon all driving, there was a sense of excitement that permeated this year's event.

"I went out for a dinner a couple of times during the weekend, and the buzz -- I keep talking about it -- it was amazing," said race winner Dario Franchitti. "And the stands are getting bigger here again, and the fans are loving that we're loving being here."

After qualifying 22nd out of 23 cars for Sunday's race at Long Beach, Danica Patrick seemed destined for a lost weekend. But some pit strategy helped her leap-frog to the front of the field.

Patrick actually ran in second place for most of the race before finishing fourth.

"If somebody had told me you were going to go out tomorrow, hang with Dario Franchitti and finish fourth, I would have said, `Sign me up,'" Patrick said. "I think in evaluating the situation and what happened in the race, there was more there. Tony and I were both faster than Will Power but he was fast down the straights. You really can't pass anywhere. You are stuck behind who you are stuck by."

After Kim Green called strategy for Patrick the past two seasons, Michael Andretti moved over to Danica's pit area this season to call the shots on the radio. So far, his wisdom and insight have paid dividends.

"Good job to Michael Andretti for the strategy and getting that right; we pitted at the right times," Patrick said. "Dario and I were on that strategy. If the yellows had fallen right, I would have had the lead. There was just no passing out there. The guys did a great job and got me in and out of the pits quickly. Everything from the tire changes to the strategy worked out well. We had yellow luck and we had non-yellow luck. That last little bit of what we needed prevented us from finishing higher than what we were."

Patrick badly needed a top-five finish this season because the critics were sharpening their fangs. And while she has hired IMG to pursue her next racing opportunity as her contract with Andretti Green Racing expires at the end of this season, the best way to get a new contract is to back it up with results.

"To run second to Mark Martin is good -- good to see him still kicking butt. I think this generation where everybody is supposed to retire a lot earlier, the longevity seems a lot more realistic now. It just shows that a guy like him can kick our butts just like anybody else."-- Tony Stewart after finishing second to Mark Martin at Phoenix.

"I don't have anything on Twitter as far as I know of. There are tons of imposters out there. I don't have a MySpace, a Twitter or none of that crap. There's a bunch of imposters out there though that you have to beware of. I really would never get into social networking -- it's just a dangerous area to be involved in, especially if you're high profile, so I think it's smart for me to stay in the regular social networks -- the ones I can see, you know."-- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on the Twitter craze.

"I can only imagine what is going on in all of their minds about the potential jail time and what that would mean for careers and lifestyles. Wives and family and all of that. One, he is on a plane going out there a free man and two, he is going to walk in to a garage area he hasn't been in and get back in his car. I am sure he is going to want to peel the sticker with the other guy's name off the side of his car. This is mine; I am getting back in it. So, I can only imagine what he is going through, and I am happy for all of them. Yes, it is good medicine. There is nothing better than being in the race car."-- Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on Helio Castroneves going from the courthouse to the race track in such a short period of time.

While NASCAR is off to Talladega Superspeedway, the IndyCar Series hits the oval tracks for the first time this season, at Kansas. That means great racing at both tracks, with the potential hair-raising moments that come from this style of racing. While a trip to Talladega isn't complete without a side-trip to Tuscaloosa for a full rack of ribs at "Dreamland," a trip to Kansas City means ribs at Gates Barbecue and a sliced beef sandwich at Arthur Bryant's Smokehouse.