INDIANAPOLIS -- Five weeks ago, Helio Castroneves stared into the abyss, wondering if he would spend Memorial Day in a federal prison as his fate was in the hands of a 12-member jury as they deliberated his fate in a tax evasion trial.
After gaining his acquittal on April 17, Castroneves had gone from the abyss to the pinnacle of his racing career, winning Sunday's 93rd Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves becomes the ninth driver to win the Indy 500 three times. Only three drivers have won it four times -- A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
"I feel honored to be in this category of drivers," Castroneves said. "When I go to the dinners with the old timers, and I'm there first of all feeling pretty impressive. I feel pretty honored just to be there. And now being in this type of category, wow, with such the incredible names, I feel blessed to be in that category."
Castroneves won this race in 2001 and 2002 but his victory on Sunday is the most special of all considering what he has overcome and how close he came to having his racing career -- and his freedom -- taken from him.
"It's incredible," Castroneves said through tears after drinking the traditional bottle of milk in victory lane.
His mother hugged her son before team owner Roger Penske leaned into the cockpit and said, "You really deserved this one."
"I think my tears speak for everything," Castroneves said after collecting himself. "I have to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity. And I have to thank my team because they gave me my life back. And to the fans, you guys kept me strong. You are the best. I'm honored to have fans like you.
"Let's celebrate now -- Yeah Baby!!!"
Later, Castroneves was able to reflect on his latest accomplishment -- one that was as much a triumph against the odds and the legal system as it was the Indianapolis 500 itself.
"It was just incredible," Castroneves said. "I have to thank everybody who supported me and to gave me the extra push, especially when I wasn't there driving the car.
"To drive for this man here (team owner Roger Penske) is just an honor. I'm so glad I'm still doing what I love most for the best in the business."
It was Penske's record 15th Indianapolis 500 victory as a team owner.
Castroneves defeated 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon of England by 1.9819-seconds.
"He's a first-class individual at the racetrack," Wheldon said of the only driver to finish ahead of him in the race. "I think the best thing about it is obviously that's over (his legal troubles) and the guy has won his third Indianapolis 500, which is no mean feat.
"This race is incredibly difficult. I think, he was the deserved winner of this race certainly from what I saw. Certainly at the end I didn't have anything for him."
Danica Patrick had her best-ever Indianapolis 500 finish of third.
"I had a really good car; a really good car on long runs," Patrick said. "I would get good runs on Dan but it wasn't enough.
"Oh well, what are you going to do? I went to the outside on the restart and thought I had the momentum but we were just dead-even. The track got better as the day went on. My car really came to me. We were able to run really flat all the way around. I'm happy with it. I wish we had a better shot at the win but what are you going to do?"
Castroneves drove away from the field at the very end and became the ninth driver to have won this race three times in their career.
Townsend Bell was fourth followed by Will Power. Defending Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon finished sixth.
Castroneves completed a sweep of all the major prizes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year. He won the pole position on May 9 and then came back last Friday to win the annual Indy 500 Pit Stop Competition.
He also had the final charge of conspiracy dropped by federal prosecutors on Friday so all that was left was to win Sunday's Indy 500.
But for much of that race, it appeared Castroneves would fall short as the two Target/Chip Ganassi drivers took turns leading most of the race.
Dixon attempted to win the Indy 500 for the second straight year when he led two times for 73 laps -- the most of any driver in the 200-lap race. Castroneves led twice for 66 laps and Dario Franchitti, the 2007 winner, led two times for 50 laps.
Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe led one time for 11 laps -- the only other driver to lead in the race.
But with 17 laps left on a restart, Castroneves was able to drive away from the field because Patrick and Wheldon were battling it out for second place.
That was all Castroneves needed to take advantage of the situation.
"I had a good gap between the second place," Castroneves said. "I tried to keep looking to the number of laps, and they keep telling me ten laps to go. Then I didn't know if it was ten or seven -- I was just so confused. I didn't even ask the lap time that the second place was doing.
"At that point I was just trying to finish the race and manage the gap that I had and hopefully not get in traffic. Because this year the field was so tight, I can see it was very hard to get traffic."
While Castroneves was able to drive back to the top of his profession, Sunday's Indy 500 was a rough ride for several drivers with eight caution periods for 61 laps.
The most spectacular crash of the race sent Vitor Meira's car riding the Turn 1 wall like it was on a rail after it hooked wheels with Raphael Matos' car on 175th lap. Both drivers were able to climb from their respective cars but the collision damaged the SAFER Barrier.
Meira was alert but complained of back pain after he was removed from the car and was transported to Methodist Hospital. He suffered fractured L-1 and L-2 vertebra of his lower back. Meira will be put in a back brace and be treated by Dr. Terry Trammel in a non-operative procedure.
There is no word on who team owner A.J. Foyt will name as a substitute driver for next week's race at The Milwaukee Mile.
The grinding crash came after Meira had survived a pit fire that briefly engulfed his car on lap 134.
Tony Kanaan just slammed hard into the third turn wall on the 99th lap. Kanaan, the best driver in the field who has yet to win the world's biggest race, hit the backstretch wall, then slid across the north short chute and crashed hard into the outside wall in Turn 3.
It was the second year in a row Kanaan has crashed in the third turn wall. Last year, he was punted into the wall by AGR teammate Marco Andretti.
"Something broke in the middle of the straightaway, then I went for a wild ride," Kanaan said. "I rest my head on the head rest and closed my eyes. I knew it was going to be a big one. It looks like I just got beat up big-time.
"Me and this place, again, one more time. I had a big scare."
Davey Hamilton smacked the Turn 2 wall just two laps past the 200-mile mark. Hamilton was uninjured and walked to the safety vehicle. He was competing in his ninth Indy 500, which is a bit of a miracle considering he had severe feet and leg injuries from a crash during an IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001.
The 47-year-old Hamilton started on the inside of the eighth row and was driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
"I just barely tagged the wall but by the time you get into the marbles here, it's over," Hamilton said.
Rookie Graham Rahal's attempt at becoming the youngest winning in Indianapolis 500 history will have to wait for one more year as the 20-year-old driver crashed coming off the fourth turn on lap 56.
The initial start of the race was waved off when the 33-car starting field was out of alignment. The field was able to bunch up for the second attempt at a start. Mario Moraes and Andretti attempted to get through the south short chute but it didn't work as Moraes crashed into Andretti's car.
While those drivers experienced the cruel side of the Indy 500; Castroneves exemplifies the excellence and exhileration that only comes with victory.
"Winning here -- it's very special," Castroneves said. "I'm just so honored to be the guy doing that. To be sitting here talking to you guys is just amazing because this place is very special.
"I'm super happy that the Indianapolis 500 is coming back."
Castroneves certainly knows a thing or two about comebacks.