Castroneves gains ground at Pocono

LONG POND, Pa. -- "Wow!"

That one-word exclamation was Helio Castroneves' reaction to learning that his second-place finish in Sunday's Pocono INDYCAR 500 was enough to move him into a tie at the top of the Verizon IndyCar Series point standings with his Team Penske teammate Will Power.

Castroneves finished the 200-lap contest some 2.3 seconds behind his other Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who scored the first Indy car win of his comeback to open-wheel cars after seven years in NASCAR. But the talking point was an incident between Power and Castroneves with about 30 laps to go that may have dramatically altered the course of this year's title chase.

After running the first three-quarters of the race caution free, Graham Rahal's crash on Lap 158 triggered an 80-mile sprint race. The drama started with the Lap 166 restart, when Montoya broke his car's left-front wing end plate on the right rear corner of Power's car as they approached the green flag. Both drivers continued, with Montoya quickly taking over the race lead. Meanwhile, Power was being stalked by Castroneves, who whipped to the inside to pass into Turn 1 on lap 171. Power darted left to block, then appeared to make a second jink to the left that drew the attention of IndyCar Series officials.

"I'd let him by," advised Power's strategist, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, by radio, and Castroneves regained the position. But the damage was done, and Power was called in for a drive-through penalty for blocking on Lap 176.

Needless to say, Power wasn't happy. "Get your head on straight!" admonished Cindric on the radio. "Let's go. There's still time."

Maybe had there been another caution, but not in this clean and green race. Power crossed the line 10th, just ahead of the a disappointed Tony Kanaan, who led most of the middle 100 laps of the race but lost out on a fuel-saving strategy.

Which brings us back to where we came in, with Castroneves' amazement at his move into the lead of the standings. He started the day 39 points behind Power, and was 46 points behind his teammate at the time they came together late in the Pocono race.

Castroneves' joy was matched by Power's dejection.

"I don't know what to say," Power said in a television interview. "Another penalty, another drive-through, and another really good opportunity lost.

"I'm sure the [NBC Sports Network television] commentators up there, as they always do -- Townsend [Bell] and his friends -- gave me a good rap. There you go."

In a subsequent interview with radio and print reporters, Power added: "I don't know, I got a drive-through. It's tough at the end of the race.

"If it had been earlier I could have recovered. We were done. Drive-through penalty, you're done."

Castroneves refused to derive joy from his teammate's sorrow, but expressed delight at the gain he made in the point standings.

"That's one thing about our team ... at Team Penske, there is no team orders," he said. "We race hard and we will push for it. Unfortunately I'm not the one to make the calls. But I think we were pushing hard and we are fighting for the championship. In the end, it's not my call.

"I have not had a chance to talk to Will," Helio continued. "The good news is what happens on track stays on the track. Like I said, we were racing hard. At the end of day I have no hard feelings. I would do something different probably, but I don't think there any hard feelings. Its not about us -- it's about Team Penske. We want to get this championship no matter what, but we want to be smart as well."

All that left Montoya somewhat in the shadow after his first Indy car win since he triumphed in a CART-sanctioned 300-miler at Gateway International Raceway in September 2000. He competed in Formula One from 2001-06 and in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series from 2007 before returning to Indy cars.

He won the fastest 500-mile race in history with an average of 202.402 mph. That eclipsed Jimmy Vasser's record from California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway) of 197.995 mph in 2002.

Sam Hornish Jr. holds the all-time speed record for an Indy car race, averaging 207.151 mph over 400 miles at California in 2003.

The Colombian has also moved up to fourth in the IndyCar Series standings, 55 points behind his teammates. Simon Pagenaud ranks third (minus-44) after finishing 11th at Pocono.

"Congratulations, Montoya! Are you kidding?" said an enthusiastic Castroneves. "This guy is unbelievable, coming back after 15 years and winning a race. He did a great job.

"I knew when they signed him he would be a great asset and a headache for us."

After his remarkable performance in the CART series in 1999 and 2000, when he won 11 races and a championship, in addition to the IRL-sanctioned Indianapolis 500, some observers were surprised that it took Montoya 11 races to find Victory Lane again.

"It's been a long road, and it's been a lot harder than people realize," he said. "Driving open-wheel cars is so different than what I've been driving the last few years. It was gonna take time. I didn't want to jinx it, and say, 'It's coming, it's coming.'

"This is this point where we need to step up and work a little harder because I think we're in position to win the championship," he added. "We have to step up on our performance on the street courses, and I haven't been to the shot ovals yet, so I don't know how that's going to be.

"I hope it's going to be as good as this."