By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
Helio Castroneves entered Sunday’s 102nd Indianapolis 500 knowing it could potentially be his final Verizon IndyCar Series start
After exiting early following a Lap 146 crash, the three-time winner prays it’s anything but it.
“Please Roger (Penske), can I come back?” Castroneves told ABC’s broadcast shortly after his incident.
Castroneves is one of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s most decorated drivers, sitting one win behind the all-time mark for Indy 500 victories with three triumphs (2001, ’02, ’09) in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’
For the past nine years, the Brazilian has returned to Indianapolis each May, chasing the elusive fourth victory that would tie him with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears atop the wins list. Castroneves has come close to the mark numerous times, finishing inside of the top 10 in eight of his past nine attempts and finishing a heartbreaking second in both 2014 and ’17.
The 43-year-old was shifted over the Team Penske’s new IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship team for 2018, but he was allowed a two-race return to IndyCar to compete in his traditional No. 3 Chevrolet. His first race in the INDYCAR Grand Prix went well by most measures, with Castroneves finishing sixth in his first start with the new 2018 aero kits.
When Castroneves followed that effort up with an eighth-place qualifying result for the Indy 500, the 21-year indy car veteran fostered hope that he could once again contend in the 200-lap race.
Early on he did just that. Castroneves spent the majority of his time in Sunday’s race within the top 10, dropping back only during pit stops. By the time the race entered its meddle sections, Castroneves found himself battling for a place in the top five and appearing to be one of the few drivers with a chance to drink the milk at day’s end.
After passing Ryan Hunter-Reay on the outside in the previous set of turns, Castroneves was trying to work his way up to teammate Simon Pagenaud and a podium position on Lap 146 when he soared off of Turn 4.
But when he tried to turn onto the straightaway, the car over-rotated. Castroneves’ No. 3 was sent spinning around, and the veteran could do little but hang on as his car careened into the inside wall.
In a race he’d hoped to win, Castroneves would instead have to watch teammate Will Power’s triumph from the sidelines after ending his day in 27th.
“The car was actually handling good, I couldn’t get too close to other guys,” he said. “I guess when I went to pass (Ryan) Hunter-Reay on the outside, maybe got a little debris on the tire – I don’t know, that was obviously the first time. My worry was actually Turn 1, not so much in Turn 4, so I felt a little bit movement but I was feeling that most of the time. But this time, unfortunately the rear just over-rotated.”
While his Indy return ended in disappointment, Castroneves can take solace in the fact that he appears poised for another go next May.
“It’s hard to say no to him, isn’t it?” Penske said when asked about Castroneves in his post-race media availability. “I have to talk to the (team) president here. He’ll figure that one out for me.”
Team president Tim Cindric quickly responded.
“He’s going to be back,” Cindric said. “He will be here next year in one of our cars.
“That guy was sitting here this morning before I walked in, sitting in his firesuit next to his engineer ready to go, about 6:30 this morning. I don’t think I’ve seen him out of his yellow suit since we got here this month. He’s ready to go all the time.”
Assuming he’s ready to go next year, Castroneves will likely get a 10th – and potentially last – shot at placing his name alongside the all-time indy car greats as a four-time Indy 500 winner.