By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
Motorsports Tribune reviews the season of the top 10 drivers from the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Our list continues with the fourth-place championship finisher, Helio Castroneves.
Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet
- 2017: 4th in the championship
- Wins: 1, Top 5: 9, Top 10: 16, Poles: 3, Laps Led: 442
- Best Finish: 1st (Iowa Speedway)
With Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves set to move over to sports car racing outside of the Indianapolis 500 in 2018, his 2017 served as both an impressive final Verizon IndyCar Series (VICS) season and another heartbreaking championship effort.
Castroneves, 42, arrived at St. Petersburg last March with an uncertain future ahead of him. Teammate Juan Pablo Montoya had been pushed out of full-time INDYCAR competition in favor of the incoming Josef Newgarden going into 2017, and the rumor mill started claiming that Castroneves might be the next one out early in the season.
Despite that, Castroneves never let the stress or pressure show. He began the year with a strong sixth-place effort, and followed that with three top fives and a ninth-place run to head into the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 sitting fourth in the standings.
As he’s done many times in his illustrious career, Castroneves willed himself into contention in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’ Despite starting 19th, the three-time Indy 500 champion methodically worked his way to the front of the field, ultimately finding himself entrenched in another classic Indy battle as he dueled with Takuma Sato for the victory over the final laps.
Unfortunately for Castroneves, his quest for a fourth Indy 500 title ended once again in narrow defeat. He finished second in the 200-lap event for the third time in his 17 attempts on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
While Castroneves was denied another appearance on the Borg-Warner Trophy, the Brazilian’s Indianapolis outing was enough to thrust him into the championship conversation. The run gave him the VICS points lead for the first time since 2014, and while he was unable to hold onto the top spot during the following weekend’s Belle Isle Park doubleheader, Castroneves would stay inside of the top four in points for the rest of the season.
From Belle Isle onward, Castroneves’ season became a tale of consistency. After a crash in the ensuing race at Texas Motor Speedway, which resulted in a 20th-place finish, the 21-year indy car vet ended the year with eight-straight finishes of eighth or better.
Perhaps most importantly, Castroneves also returned to victory lane. He led 217 of 300 laps to dominate in INDYCAR’s traditional summer trip to Iowa Speedway, cruising to his first victory since the second race at Belle Isle in 2014.
Castroneves’ season-long consistency was enough to keep him eligible to claim the VICS championship in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway, but in the end his inability to consistently finish atop the grid proved too much to overcome.
By virtue of having six fewer podiums and making three less trips to victory lane, Castroneves lost out on the championship to teammate Newgarden. He ultimately ended the season fourth in the standings, slotting in behind Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon.
Another strong effort. Another championship shutout.
All told, Castroneves’ 2017 season sits among his best since moving to INDYCAR full-time in 2002. He was nowhere near his career-best four wins (2006) or 11 podiums (2008), but Castroneves’ 6.2 average finish was the fourth best mark he’s managed in VICS competition, trailing only 2008 (4.0), 2002 (4.6) and 2006 (6.1).
For the 13th time in his 16 full-time seasons, Castroneves also ended the year in the top five of the VICS points standings.
None of those 13 seasons ended with Castroneves hoisting up the Astor Cup – the INDYCAR championship trophy – but the consistency mixed with his three Indy 500 wins to date will make for a compelling argument when Castoneves’ shot at the various motorsports hall of fames arrives.
Castroneves will be back in the INDYCAR paddock for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 in May, but otherwise he’s expected to focus his attention for 2018 and beyond on IMSA, where he’ll compete in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
In a sense, that means 2017 marked the end of an era.
After more than two decades of victories, fence climbs, bold moves and infectious smiles, Castroneves’ time as a full-time presence on the INDYCAR tour appears to have come to an end.
If that is the case, then Castroneves can take pride knowing that his tenure ended much as it began – strong, fast and in contention for victories all year long.