Rahal, Danica take center stage with history-making performances

Helio Castroneves has taken a back seat to Graham Rahal and Danica Patrick early in 2008. AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Helio Castroneves has graciously stepped aside to allow others to take the IndyCar Series spotlight five months after making his national headlines.

OK, that's not exactly how the proceedings have played out, but imagine the what-ifs.

What if he had been able to hang with Graham Rahal on the final restart on April 6 at St. Petersburg and make a pass in the closing laps?

What if his Team Penske Dallara-Honda had a little more ethanol in the tank and had been able to continue staying in front of Danica Patrick at Japan?

You know what they say about ifs, though it's doubtful that the IndyCar Series would be quite as hot a property heading into Sunday's fourth race at Kansas Speedway had Castroneves won instead of finishing second the last two races. The story lines of Rahal becoming the youngest open-wheel race winner at 19 years, 93 days old and Patrick making gender-barrier history wouldn't exist. The media outlets and talk shows would have dedicated significantly less time and space to open-wheel racing.

Instead it would have been a continued Castroneves-fest, with the "Dancing with the Stars" winner moving swiftly from first on the dance floor to first in two of the first three races of the season.

Yet the Brazilian doesn't mind the reality in two runner-up efforts, prolonging a winless streak dating to early 2007. He sees the big picture, and he is in first -- in series points.

"It's supposed to be like that, it's history made," Castroneves said. "I definitely understand that, it's the heat of the moment. Everyone wants to see the races and see how it's run. That means we're going to be there. Hopefully we continue leading the championship."

The title chase is Castroneves' primary motivation, after collecting a dozen wins including back-to-back Indianapolis 500s and more recognition from a television show than he could ever earn from success in a race car.

He knows what Danica went through this week, flying from Japan to Long Beach, Calif., and then New York for dozens of interviews. He had the same tour in the wake of his dance title, taking a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York after his triumph in front of an estimated 25 million prime-time television viewers. (By comparison, about a half-million American viewers saw Danica win in Japan, either live in the wee hours of Saturday or on Sunday afternoon replay.) The dance show still takes up chunks of his time, as this week he was back in Los Angeles to work as a television correspondent analyzing the new season of "Dancing With the Stars."

But when it comes time to return to the day job, Castroneves hasn't missed a step. He was fourth in the season opener at Homestead-Miami before his back-to-back second place finishes. He qualified eighth Saturday in Kansas.

"What he does here at the racetrack is what comes naturally to him -- it's like going back home and riding a bicycle, really," said Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe. "The whole dancing thing is fun -- that took a lot more focus and concentration. Here, he's been around this paddock for so long. He's not going to forget, or even lose motivation."

That motivation, contrary to how it might have looked when the No. 3 moved aside for the No. 7, was alive at Japan. Castroneves was miffed to miss out on the win, but realized the consequences in possibly trying to run down Patrick.

"If I had tried to do something, I would have ended up 10th or 11th, which would have hurt us in the championship," he said.
Therefore, he was able to enjoy standing on the left side of the podium, spraying bubbly and accepting the runner-up trophy.

"I'm happy I'm part of history, I guess. I'm leading the championship, why not be happy about it?" Castroneves said. "Yes, it's the race that she won, but it's the championship I'm looking for. Those points at the end of the day hopefully will pay off for the championship.

"They will remember about that history, but they will know I finished second, that I was consistent. That's what you need to have today with so many cars on the track now."

His winless streak stands at 18, his longest since 2003-04 when he also went 18 races between wins. But this start is Castroneves' second best in his seven full IndyCar seasons. In 2006 he finished second at Homestead-Miami and won at St. Petersburg and Japan, only to crash at Indianapolis after 109 laps and finish 25th. He would go on to win two more races, but finish two points shy of Sam Hornish Jr. and Dan Wheldon (Hornish won the title via race-win tiebreaker).

"You can never say 'He's not trying, he's already got everything,'" Castroneves said. "This championship, I want it more than anybody. It applies to the same thing at Indy. Just because I won twice doesn't mean I want it anymore. It adds to the desire."

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.