Helio Has A New Bounce In His Step

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Apparently, discussing any story from Spring Training that is either negative or controversial is considered taboo. I’ll try to adhere to the unwritten and previously unknown rule that says bloggers must discuss only the sunny side of the sport. I’ve been quick to complain about the Legions of the Miserable, but to some – I’ve joined them. Therefore, I’ll tackle a subject that may not be as polarizing or perplexing as the Dragon Racing / Lotus fiasco, but it brings a smile to my face nevertheless.

Based strictly on only two days of testing earlier this week, Helio Castroneves seems to have his stride back. Before everyone is outraged that I would make such a statement after two days of pre-season testing, let me say this – I get it. Riding around a course while learning a new car is no prediction of what a sixteen-race season in competition will bring. But based on what I’ve read, his consistent times and the energy and enthusiasm I heard in his voice on Trackside last night – it seems like Helio has a new bounce in his step.

He needs to. The last few seasons for Helio have been forgettable, at best. Keep in mind, I consider Helio Castroneves to be my favorite full-time current driver in the series. I certainly have those that I rank right up there with him – Tony Kanaan being one of them, but I’ve been an Helio fan since his debut in CART with Tony Bettenhausen’s team. That’s why it has pained me to watch his performance slide these past few seasons.

Even though he finished second in points in 2008 to Scott Dixon, it was a distant second that only tightened up when Helio edged Dixon at the season ending race in Chicago. It’s been a while since Castroneves has been a serious threat to win the championship headed into the final race of the season. In fact, 2003 may have been the last time – when he finished third to Dixon and teammate Gil de Ferran respectively with only twenty-three points spanning first to third place.

Team owner Roger Penske isn’t known for allowing sub-par performance to hang around his team very long. Castroneves is about to begin his thirteenth straight season at Team Penske. No one but Rick Mears (fifteen years) has put in that much time with The Captain. That tells me that Roger Penske still sees something in Helio.

Helio has had more than his share of distractions. In 2007, he participated in (and won) Dancing With The Stars .During that time, he and his fiancé broke off their engagement. Near the end of the 2008 season, his tax evasion trial became public and it carried over long enough to make him miss the first race of the 2009 season. He was able to win his third Indianapolis 500 that season, but completely faded in the second half of the season. He came across as emotionally drained and rightfully so.

The 2010 season started out much better for him. He had a top ten and a fourth place finish before winning the inaugural race at Barber. By this time, he had a new girlfriend and an infant daughter. It looked like he was poised for a big season. Instead, after a disappointing ninth place finish at Indianapolis – Helio’s summer was very mediocre, with two finishes of twentieth or worse. There was also the memorable explosion at Edmonton that garnered a lot of attention for the wrong reasons.He was able to salvage fourth place for the season by finishing with two straight wins at Kentucky and Motegi and a fifth at the season finale at Homestead. After Indianapolis, he was never a threat to win the 2010 championship.

Starting fast and fading down the stretch had become a familiar pattern for Castroneves throughout his career. That is, until the 2011 season.

If Helio thought 2010 was bad, the 2011 season was a disaster from the very start. He made an ill-advised move going into the first turn of the first lap of the first race and took out several contenders, including one of his teammates – Ryan Briscoe. Helio finished twentieth. Two races later at Long Beach, he made another foolish move, this time taking out teammate Will Power. Helio finished twelfth. He got tangled up again at São Paulo, although it’s debatable whether or not he was totally at fault. Still, he finished twenty-first.

After an unusually quiet Month of May, Helio was a complete non-factor during the race and finished an unremarkable seventeenth. Aside from a second place finish at Sonoma, the miserable season continued. For the first time since he joined Team Penske in 2000, Helio went winless in 2011 as he limped towards an eleventh place finish – while his teammates finished second and sixth.

Some questioned whether Helio would return. Rumors swirled that Team Penske would scale down to a two-car team. There was debate among fans whether Briscoe or Helio would be the odd man out. There were decent arguments supporting why each would get the axe. Many thought Helio had gotten old and was burned out. Some suggested both would go and a new driver would be hired. As we now know, none of the above happened. Team Penske still has the same driver lineup as a year ago.

So what can we expect out of Helio Castroneves this season? The fact that he was consistently fast in the first two sessions at Sebring, suggests that he’s not going to be content to just ride around and collect a paycheck for one more year. As mentioned earlier, he sounds more focused to me than he has in years. Perhaps he saw his childhood friend Tony Kanaan lose his ride at the end of the 2010 season and the trials and sponsor searching he went through. After seeing that and wondering if he might be facing the same task this past offseason, maybe he has realized what a great opportunity he still has – driving for one of the best teams in the business in always having an excellent chance at winning the Indianapolis 500.

I think if truth be known; it is probably Helio’s three Speedway wins, which represent one-fifth of all of Penske’s Indianapolis victories that probably saved his job. I firmly believe that Roger Penske covets an Indianapolis 500 win far more than he does a series championship. The fact that Castroneves has such a stellar record at 16th and Georgetown is probably why he’s back with The Captain for a thirteenth season.

New cars and new engines will make for a very interesting season in 2012. By the time Pole Day rolls around this May, Helio Castroneves will have already turned thirty-seven. He knows he is looking at a window that is quickly shutting. He is driven to win a fourth and then a fifth Indianapolis 500 victory – something that no one has ever done in over one hundred years. His best chance to achieve that milestone is with Team Penske, and he knows that.

Helio Castroneves is still an excellent driver. He is personable with the fans and now that Danica Patrick is gone – he is probably the most recognizable name in the IZOD IndyCar Series. I want to see him stay in the familiar No.3 Penske car until he decides it’s time to hang up his helmet. That’s why he needs to put together a strong season this year. With new equipment and a possible newfound appreciation for being at Team Penske, Helio has a lot to look forward to for 2012. Perhaps that explains that new bounce in his step.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “Helio Has A New Bounce In His Step”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Geez George… If you can’t say something nice about a guy, don’t say anything…!!!

  2. I miss Vitor. This series is going to Heck. It will be out of business by next week at the Latest.

  3. Japan sucks.

  4. I sure hope Helio wins a race this year. Right after Hinch, Newgarten, Carpenter, Rubens, Kanaan, Simona, Kimball, Conway, Dixie, Hildebrand, RHR, Marco, Rahal and Legge win one…

  5. I have a good feeling about Helio this season. I hope it ends like I feel like it will end.

  6. This will be a tough year so I hope that Helio doesn’t expect a cakewalk. I will give my predictions on the season soon.

    • Agree completely. This will likely (potential engine mfg issues notwithstanding) be the most competitive season we’ve seen in a very long time. More potential winners and title contenders. I’m excited more than I’ve been in quite a while.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    He’s OK, but I thought Milka Duno was better looking.

  8. TheCreatureDyingInYourBath Says:

    Great article George… This is indeed a kind of break it or make it year for Helio, and seeing how he’ll cope with that will be one of this season’s main storyline. That said – his team-mate Briscoe is going to be in the same situation after a disappointing 2011, and we’ll have to see if Power can master the new car after the slight testing setbacks… So yea, will have to watch the Penske drivers in 2012!

    You know I wish people would talk more about the upcoming season, but sadly this kind of interresting storylines get overshadowed by the usual gloom and doom talk, but that’s silly season for you I guess…! /whine

    Keep the good articles coming George!

  9. Helio just isn’t consistant enough to win a Championship. But he can win every given weekend…Just like Ryan Briscoe. This seems similar to what Ferrari has right now. Will Power is Fernando Alonso while Felipe Massa (Helio and Briscoe) is their to pick up the scraps. Of course Ferrari does this on purpose. Penske doesn’t.

    If Power, Dario, or Dixon doesnt win the championship it will be an upset. I would put Rahal, TK, and Rubens in the second tier. Helio and Briscoe in the third with RHR and perhaps Marco.

    The question I have is who replaces Helio in the coming years (perhaps next)? Penske missed its chance at Rahal. Newgarden? Daly? Too early to actually know but fun to speculate.

    • I agree with you about Helio; and I basically concur with your placements, except I would add Servia to your third tier list (I would definitely place him in the second tier if he was driving a Chevy or Honda). Oriol will be the top Lotus driver, with Tagliani and Bourdais fighting it out for second (My money would be on Bourdais).

      • I obviously have no faith in Lotus which was a change from a few weeks ago. What kills Bourdais within the Lotus camp is he will be taking a big ZERO in Milwaukee.

        • Not to mention that the apparent issue regarding the Dragon-doesn’t-have-a-motor story was in fact a financial matter. If Dragon is struggling, it’s only going to hinder both drivers, but it will be more evident with Bourdais, who’s certainly capable of running at the front in the right car.

  10. Mike (15daysinmay) Says:

    I’m with you, George, I think Helio getting his fourth (and possibly more) 500 win in the Penske stable is a big deal to Roger. That would mean three of the four drivers to win four would have won their fourth driving for his team. He lives for Indy and always has. Still not sure where I am with Briscoe, very likeable guy and has shown some flashes of brilliant driving. What he has had very little of is luck. I think he is an above-average driver that is third fiddle on his team so he has to struggle with that. That and the No. 1 driver on his team is an absolute beast, that is tough to compete with.

  11. JHall14 Says:

    A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears. Do you really think he belongs with the BIG 3? I don’t think so and I am sure several others agree, especially with no championships.

  12. Don’t worry George, while negative comments about pre-season testing are taboo, Japan bashing is always in style.

  13. My opinion, unencumbered by facts, is that Penske really cares about the 500. Helio is a 3-time winner and #3 was recent. If he’s mediocre during the season but looks like he’ll win Indy, Penske will keep him. If Penske thinks he can’t win Indy anymore, he’ll be gone.

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