Indy 500: Castroneves wins

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 25, 2009

By Paul Newberry
Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS ó Pumping his fist as he took the checkered flag and breaking down in tears when he was done, Helio Castroneves capped a perfect month of May with the biggest win of all Sunday at the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves became the ninth driver to win the historic race three times, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Just 51/2 weeks ago, he was aquitted of most charges at a federal tax evasion trial, and the remaining count was thrown out on Friday.
Instead of going to prison for as long as six years, Castroneves pulled his red-and-white machine into Victory Lane at the Brickyard. No wonder he was sobbing when team owner Roger Penske leaned in to give him a hug.
“Thanks for giving my life back,” the 34-year-old Brazilian told his boss, who earned his record 15th win at Indy.
Castroneves completed a clean sweep of every Indy prize, also claiming the pole position and winning the pit-stop competition. Throw in the federal government’s decision to drop the last of the tax charges just minutes before he went out for the final practice, and “this is the best month of May ever,” said Castroneves, now only one win away from joining the most elite group of all: four-time Indy winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Castroneves pulled away over the final laps to beat Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick, who eclipsed her historic fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005 by crossing the strip of bricks in third.
Patrick, however, was never a factor.
This day belonged to Castroneves, who pumped his fist all the way down the final straightaway.
“I want to climb the fence,” said the driver known as “Spiderman,” referring to his signature celebration.
Then he did just that, climbing out of his car after the victory lap and scaling the fence along the main grandstand with his pit crew. Someone tossed him a green-and-yellow Brazilian flag.
The victory was clearly popular with the quarter of a million fans who turned out on a sweltering late spring day and were on their feet, cheering and waving these caps as Castroneves sped around the 2.5-mile oval for the final time.
“You guys kept me strong,” Castroneves told the crowd. “You guys are the best. I’m honored to have fans like you.
“Let’s celebrate now!”
Crashes took out some of the biggest names in the field, including Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. The most frightening wreck occurred on lap 173, when Brazilians Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos got together going into the first turn.
Meira’s car veered head-on into the padded outside wall. He was removed from the car, put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital complaining of severe lower-back pain.
The lengthy caution period ensured that everyone had enough fuel to get to the finish. When the race restarted with 17 laps to go, Castroneves got a great jump on Wheldon and Patrick and pulled away to win by nearly 2 seconds, more than two football fields.
“I had a really good car,” Patrick said. “Oh well, what are you going to do?”
Added Wheldon, “At the end, I just didn’t have enough for Helio.”
It was clear from the start that Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing had the strongest cars. Castroneves led 66 laps and teammate Ryan Briscoe ran out front for 11. On the Ganassi side, defending 500 champion Scott Dixon set the pace for a race-best 73 laps, while his teammate Dario Franchitti led the other 50.