The Best By Far

June 01, 2009
June 01, 2009

Table of Contents
June 1, 2009

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Harvey Haddix

The Best By Far

A masterly third Indy 500 win capped an emotional month for Helio Castroneves and further cemented the dominance of record-setting owner Roger Penske

One by one they approached the white-haired legend as he walked down pit road late on Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Actress Ashley Judd threw her arms around him. Rival team owner Chip Ganassi gave him a high five. And dozens of crewmen from opposing teams lined up along pit wall to pat him on the back and shake his hand—all suffering from severe cases of Penske envy.

This is an article from the June 1, 2009 issue

For Roger Penske, the 72-year-old owner of Team Penske, this was a familiar scene. His lead driver, Helio Castroneves in this case, had just given Penske a record 15th career victory in the Indy 500, and it capped a month of ruthless domination for Penske at the 2.5-mile oval. "This one might be the most special of all because it closes the book on everything that Helio has gone through," Penske said as he watched Castroneves, accompanied by his ecstatic crew, climb the catch fence at the finish line to celebrate winning the 93rd running of the 500. "I'll never get tired of winning here."

The 34-year-old Castroneves (SI, May 25) had enjoyed a near-perfect May. He consistently topped the speed charts in practices, took the pole and won the annual pit stop competition. Then, two days before the race, federal prosecutors in Miami dropped the final conspiracy charge in his tax-evasion trial, clearing Castroneves of all the charges that had threatened to ruin his career. On Sunday he led 66 laps on the way to his third 500 win, becoming the ninth driver with at least three Indy victories. He's now just one win away from joining the most elite group in American open-wheel racing: Only A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have won four Indy 500s. No driver has won five.

"This is the biggest win of my career," a teary Castroneves said afterward. "I now have my life back."

Midway through the race, though, Castroneves had struggled for the first time all month. He fell as low as sixth, battling problems with his gearbox. But his team made adjustments during pit stops, finding speed each time they touched the car, and on a restart on Lap 142 of 200 Castroneves charged past reigning race and series champion Scott Dixon with startling ease. He seized the lead and then held off 2005 Indy winner Dan Wheldon, who finished second, and Danica Patrick, who came in third—a career best for her at Indy and the best-ever performance by a woman in the 500. "What can you say? Helio was just the best all month," Patrick said. "I don't think there's anyone here who's not happy for him. He deserves this."

So what makes Team Penske the gold standard at Indy? For starters, the 63-person organization devotes more resources and manpower to winning the 500 than any other team in the Indy Car Series. "We start thinking about and preparing for this race the day after we leave here," says Tim Cindric, the president of Penske Racing. "Winning is everything to us at Indy. We don't care about finishing second."

Team Penske also boasts a combined 800 years of experience at Indy, by far the most in the series. Cindric, 40, is regarded as the sport's top in-race tactician—rarely do his drivers get snookered on fuel mileage or pit strategy by other organizations—and the team's crews have won a record 11 pit competitions at Indy. Throw in a driver the caliber of Castroneves, and you have the recipe for a powerhouse team. How much better has Penske been at Indy than everyone else? The owner with the second-most 500 wins is the late Lou Moore. He won five—or 10 fewer than the Captain, as Penske is known.

Penske and his wife, Kathy, have been coming to the Brickyard for 37 years, but on Sunday, Kathy experienced a first. As Castroneves was kissing the yardwide strip of bricks that marks the finish line, he summoned her to join him. Kathy then planted a wet one on the most famous piece of pavement in American motor sports. "I've never done that before!" she yelled as she walked toward Victory Lane. "Helio is such a sweetheart to ask me to do that."

He's also now officially this: the best Indy 500 driver of his generation.

PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICHMILKING THE MOMENT After starting on the pole, Castroneves staged a late-race charge that put him in Victory Lane (inset) yet again.PHOTOJEFF HAYNES/REUTERS[See caption above]