Helio Has A New Bounce In His Step
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.