INDIANAPOLIS — Helio Castroneves told the AP on Thursday and Team Penske representatives later confirmed that the popular Brazilian driver will be back with Team Penske for the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Castroneves, 44, will be racing for the team in the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course then race on the oval after for the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
While Castroneves wants to obviously win the road course race, it’s the ‘500 that he’s strongly after. See, Castroneves has won three times on the famed 2.5-mile oval. Only AJ Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. have won more with four apiece. Another win in the ‘500 would put Castroneves in immortality with those three.
That’s why he keeps coming back. It’s an addiction that he won’t stop trying to accomplish until someone tells him ‘no’ and Penske gives him the best shot of making it happen.
Following the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series season though, Penske dissolved a team and went from a four car full time lineup to three. That cost Castroneves his full time seat. Despite that, Penske didn’t let him get too far, as he set up a multiyear deal for Castroneves to race with them on the IMSA side as well as keep getting one off shots at Indy each year.
That contract was up last year. Castroneves pleaded for Roger to give him another shot. Penske obliged. Not only is he back in IMSA for 2020, he’s now back at Indy too.
The problem is, Indy is hard to win as a one-off. Dan Wheldon was the last to do so in 2011. The time before that was technically Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 and Castroneves himself in 2001, but they ran full time in CART, so while they were “one off’s” for Indy, they were still full time open wheel racers. Indy wasn’t their first race of the season in those years.
Those are really the only three instances over the last several decades that has seen someone make a one-off effort at Indy and win the ‘500. Castroneves, will hope to do so in four months.
It’s also fitting that since Castroneves became a one-off, or in his case, a two-off, that he’s faced some of his worst results at Indy. He finished 27th in 2018 and 18th last year. Those are two of his three worst Indy finishes of his 19 year career in Indy. While he’s only finished outside the top 10 just five times — three of those five have come in the last four years though.
This race is tough to just hop into a car and win. Prior to his two-off deals, he finished a close runner-up (0.2011 seconds) to Takuma Sato in 2017 and again to Ryan Hunter-Reay (0.0600 seconds) in 2014. Combined, he’s lost the ‘500 by just 0.2611 seconds in those years alone.
If things go just .2-seconds differently, he’d be a five-time Indy winner and we’re having a completely different conversation right now.
But, we’re not, as 2020 will be his 11th attempt to join the prestigious four win club. It took Foyt 10 years between his third and fourth wins, Unser had a nine year gap and Mears just three.
While Unser and Mears each joined the four win club in a span of four years, the 1991 race was the last time we’ve witnessed it. That’s almost 30 years ago now since we’ve witnessed someone joining that lore. That’s why Castroneves’ attempt to get to four wins is widely so popular. He’s a popular driver chasing an improbable feat and has the best shot of anyone to do so.
He has three wins (2001, 2002), three runner-ups (2003, 2014, 2017) and eight top four finishes overall. Team Penske has won the ‘500 in each of the last two years and three of the last five.
Plus, since 2011, we’ve had a different winner in this race each year. A driver joining the four-win club in the future looks tough, as Castroneves could be the last one to do so for a very long time. Fans see that and know that his attempts are numbered is accomplishing this.
He’s the only one in the field with multiple ‘500 wins. We’ve had six first time winners of this race in the last seven years. Dario Franchitti is the only driver to win more than one Indy 500 in a span from 2008 through now.
Castroneves’ chase is strong and popular to witness something that may not happen again for the next several decades.