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Castroneves happy to be racing as a free man

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Motor racing's fickle gods have a wicked sense of humor, and for a brief segment of Sunday afternoon they teased a favorite son with the possibility of a fairy-tale finish.

Helio Castroneves has had plenty to occupy his thoughts recently. For much of the weekend at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach he dealt with the emotion of his return to racing and battled rustiness caused by his absence.

For months before this weekend's race, words like "objection," "sustained" and "overruled," and the very real specter of a prison term, held a grip on his psyche as he fought a $2.3 million federal tax evasion case that included six days of jury deliberation after a six-week trial.

Yet for a handful of laps on a sweltering Southern Californian afternoon, the prospect of a storied Indy Racing League victory hung tantalizingly in front of the Brazilian.

In the end, struggling Mike Conway's latest unscheduled appointment with a trackside barricade prompted a yellow flag that ruined Castroneves' chances, and the enforced slowdown meant his last 10 laps were spent in frustration rather than contention with eventual winner Dario Franchitti.

Even so, seventh place never felt more like a victory for the man who charmed a nation with his twinkling toes and championship smile on "Dancing with the Stars" and who is, along with Danica Patrick, the face of open-wheeled racing.

Friday's verdict in a Miami courtroom, where he was acquitted on six counts of tax evasion between 1999-2004, was the most important victory of his career. It sparked a flurry of activity that involved a cross-continent flight, a few laps behind the wheel, a collision with a barrier in practice and renewed acquaintances with his No. 3 Team Penske car.

The race went by like a blur to Castroneves, even if a series of yellow flags stretched out the afternoon for everyone else. His final position was probably a fair reflection of his performance. But for a driver obsessive about success, winning – just this once – wasn't everything.

As he strolled down pit row after the race, the 33-year-old spoke about a zest for life from a man happy to be back in the bosom of the motor-racing family, rather than the clutches of the penal system.

Over the course of a few minutes he was stopped countless times by well-wishers, fans, fellow racers, rival pit crews and racing officials. For each there was a smile, thanks, sometimes a hug.

Life had suddenly gotten the green light again.

"I don't even want to go home," Castroneves said. "Life has become simpler for me now and I can feel myself already starting to appreciate things better.

"All those things that I never really enjoyed, like packing or travelling – I can't wait to do those things now. I know it sounds strange but I feel blessed that I am able to do those things.

"All I wanted was for all this to be over and for me to be back in racing and wherever it takes me. The only place I don't want to go back to is a courtroom. That is not my world and it is not me."

Castroneves is now in a position to race and live in a world that is not crashing about his ears. Wherever he goes he will carry the knowledge that he came close to being motorsport's most famous felon. Instead, his popularity has never been greater and his motivation never stronger.

As Patrick, racing's First Lady, approached for another hug and some kind words, Castroneves signed off with another flash of that trademark grin.

"Sometimes you don't know what you've got until you've had to think about losing it," he said. "I don't know if I will ever think about winning in exactly the same way again, but I know that after all this I want it more than anything."