Sweet, sweet victory for Castroneves

INDIANAPOLIS -- The next time things don't go your way, the next time you wonder whether the good times are behind you, do yourself a favor.

Think of Helio Castroneves. Life can change for the better in an instant.

The 34-year-old Brazilian has gone from the darkest period of his life over the past six months to absolute triumph, winning his third Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

These are tough times in America. So many people have lost their jobs. Far too many have lost their homes. And most of them wonder whether they ever will see a happy moment again.

Castroneves wondered that, too.

A little over a month ago, he was facing deportation or prison over tax-evasion charges. A brilliant racing career and his freedom rested in the hands of a Miami jury.

Castroneves was acquitted April 17 and immediately returned to his race car for Penske Racing. He raced well at Long Beach, finished second at Kansas City and won the pole at Indy two weeks ago.

On Friday, the final charge pending against him (conspiracy) was dropped. He was free and clear.

But could he go all the way, from the edge of despair to ultimate victory in the biggest event of his profession?

The long and storied history of the Indy 500 is filled with emotional moments. Few if any can match the emotions of the final laps this time with Castroneves in front.

His sister, Kati, stood in the pits with her fists over her mouth, hoping this dream would come true. Kati, her brother's business manager, also was charged with tax evasion and stood trial with him.

All that was behind them Sunday. Their mother, Sandra, closed her eyes and prayed for the final five laps. Helio's girlfriend, Adriana Henao, and his father, Helio Sr., also were on pit road, all four holding hands and willing Helio home.

So were many of the spectators at the Brickyard, standing on their feet and screaming loud enough to drown out the roar of the engines.

As Castroneves made his four turns on the final lap, thousands of fans waved their hats to him, as if to push him to the finish line.

"Way to go!" Castroneves told his crew on the radio, fighting through his tears as he pumped his fist in the car. "That's awesome. Thank you, guys!"

Kati also was crying. "I cannot describe it," she told a TV reporter. "I love my brother so much. He's been through so much. I want to climb the fence. I gotta go."

She went to join her brother on his trademark move after a victory, climbing the catch fence in front of the grandstands.

Race officials seemed concerned and hesitant to let Castroneves get out of the car on the track and make his fence climb. Fortunately, they came to their senses.

Kati reached her brother just as he was climbing out of the car. They hugged on the track, both understanding better than anyone else what they had overcome.

When Castroneves got to Victory Lane and had his traditional gulp of milk, the emotions overcame him. He sat back down in the car, weeping tears of joy.

Roger Penske, the man who stood by Castroneves through it all, patted him on the chest as Castroneves wept in the cockpit.

"You all right down there?" asked Penske, who won his 15th Indy 500 as a team owner. "Wonderful job."

Castroneves stood up again and said what he was feeling.

"I'm really sorry," he said. "I think my tears speak for everything. I just thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity to be strong, and for the family I have.

"And what a great team. They gave my life back. I'm here today because of them and these fans. You guys kept me strong. I'm honored to have fans like this and team like this."

Penske isn't a man who talks about his personal feelings. Sunday was an exception -- he said he had always believed in Castroneves' innocence.

"I had so much faith that Helio hadn't done anything wrong," Penske said. "Helio and I talked on the phone almost every night through this. We never were going to leave his side. I told him, 'Hey, we're with you.'"

There were other good stories in this race. Dan Wheldon, a previous Indy 500 winner who lost his spot on Chip Ganassi's team in the offseason, finished a surprising second.

And Danica Patrick had a career-best day at Indy, finishing third.

But this was a day to celebrate a life renewed, a prime example of how the darkest of times can emerge again into the light.

"I'm so glad I can still do what I love," Castroneves said. "This place is magical for me. We were having all sorts of problems today, but once I got to the front, I never looked back."

Never look back. Castroneves is a winner again.

In these troubled times, it's a valuable lesson for us all.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.