Helio Castroneves is out of contention for the 2009 IndyCar Series championship, but the 34-year-old Brazilian could play a crucial supporting role to help his Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe win the crown this Saturday in the Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
AP Photo/Tom StricklandHelio Castroneves, left, will be championship contender Ryan Briscoe's best friend Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
With eight points separating championship leader Scott Dixon and third-placed Briscoe -- and a 10-point difference between finishing first and second in the race -- Homestead is shaping up as a winner-take-all affair. Yet if Castroneves wins the race, it could still benefit Briscoe because every point he takes away from Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Dixon and Dario Franchitti (who trails Dixon by five points) will be critical.
Castroneves has two victories this season (at Texas and the Indianapolis 500), and the Miami resident knows how he would like to see Saturday's 300-miler play out.
"If I have the opportunity to win the race right in my backyard, it would be great," Helio remarked recently during a break from tire testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "The perfect scenario would be for me to finish first and Ryan to be second so we can have a great celebration party at the end of the season.
"Certainly, I want to be in the mix," he continued. "The two Ganassi guys are going to fight each other to clinch the championship, and I'm sure each one is looking out for their own interest. The beauty for us is that I don't have to look in that direction. But you want to make sure everything is fair and square."
Castroneves could make things difficult for the Ganassi duo if he qualifies well and races at the front. Briscoe would like nothing more than to see his Penske teammate run interference on the Target cars so that he can drive away to win the race and the championship in one fell swoop.
Helio knows he can help out in that way, but he insists he'll play it clean, even if it means backing off like Vitor Meira did in the closing laps of the 2002 IndyCar Series finale when Castroneves and eventual champion Sam Hornish Jr. were disputing the title.
"There is a way of helping and there is a way of being stupid as well," Castroneves remarked. "You don't want to do anything stupid to anybody, including yourself. If you're going to take a chance, it's got to be a good risk and not an unnecessary one. If I can do anything, I will do it, obviously. But you have to think about the whole scenario."
Franchitti said he believes that Castroneves will behave in an appropriate manner if the championship hangs in the balance as the laps wind down at Homestead.
"You never know those things, but in Japan, when I was leading, we lapped Helio when he was having a bad day and he was great," Dario said. "He played absolutely fairly by all of us."
It's been a disappointing second half of the season for Castroneves in terms of results following his victory at Texas in early June. Now 10 years into his career with Team Penske and wrapping up his eighth IndyCar Series campaign, the three-time Indy 500 winner is still in search of his first overall championship. It's a goal he refuses to give up on, even if it won't happen in 2009.
"You always want to achieve your goals, and a championship has always been one of my goals," he said. "Along with that I want to win races, finish well in races and collect as many points as I can. But at the end of the day, you want to collect a championship.
"The good news is we keep ourselves hungry. When I come back next year I'm going to be as hungry as ever, because there will be more opportunities. There is an opportunity to be a four-time winner at Indy, and there is a championship as well. If it wasn't meant to be, it wasn't the right time. The Indy 500 this year is proof. We didn't finish three years in a row and now it happened. Now we know why."
Helio disputes the notion that he hit an emotional wall in the aftermath of his third Indianapolis triumph, which came on the heels of his acquittal from federal tax-evasion charges.
The previous year also was an emotional roller coaster for Castroneves. He gained a new legion of fans by winning ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" in late 2007, but went through most of 2008 riding out the longest winless streak of his IndyCar career before rallying with two late-season victories to nearly steal the IRL title from eventual winner Dixon. That's when the federal government came knocking with the tax-evasion indictment.
Since winning in Texas, Castroneves has racked up four DNFs and has achieved only one podium finish. He also crashed heavily in qualifying for the most recent IndyCar race, at Motegi, Japan.
But he insists he's ready to give his best for himself and his team Saturday near his adopted hometown.
"We're human beings, we always have ups and downs," Castroneves said. "Unfortunately we had some races where a lot of things happened outside of our control. Thank God it happened to my car, because if it happened to Ryan's car, it would have been goodbye to his challenge for the championship.
"It's one of those things. Sometimes we hit the right setup, sometimes we don't. Certainly, I'm ready for a nice race at Homestead, then I'll go home and recharge the batteries and have a great next year."