Castroneves honored by Team Penske as IndyCar season beginsIndyCars are towed to the paddock before the start of the morning practice session on the first day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Friday, March 9, 2018. (Luis Santana/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) -- Helio Castroneves will not be in the IndyCar field when the season opens for the first time since he joined the series a generation ago. His Team Penske teammates have not forgotten the popular driver.
Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power all wore special ''Helio'' stickers across the top of their visors in Friday's practice sessions for the season-opening race through the streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday. Castroneves was moved out of Penske's IndyCar organization at the end of last season and now leads its new sports car program.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner who started in the series in 1998 will be back in an Indy car in May when he goes for a record-tying fourth victory at the showcase race. On Friday, he was still trying to adjust to not being on the track and not seeing his familiar No. 3 making laps.
''I'm not going to deny it is difficult,'' Castroneves said. ''Leading up to the moments for the first practice and seeing the cars, I've been doing this for 20 years and it hasn't yet sank in that I'm not there. Slowly it's going to be normal. We adapt. We move on with life. We get over it. We 'man up.'''
Castroneves, a three-time winner at St. Pete, is the grand marshal for Sunday's race. The Brazilian joked his command might be directed only at the Penske drivers to start their engines.
Although he's a spectator this weekend, Power said it felt like Castroneves was still part of the team. To learn the new car that IndyCar rolled out for this season, Castroneves will participate in team meetings. He'll get his first seat time in the new Dallara later this month in a test at Barber Motorsports in Alabama.
As for the dynamic within the organization, which went from four cars to three without Castroneves, Power said reigning champion Newgarden fills the void.
''I think Josef kind of takes his spot as far as energy and loudness in the engineering office,'' said Power.
BUMPING IS BACK?
Bobby Rahal announced Oriol Servia as his third driver for the Indianapolis 500 and immediately started doing some math. The entries at Indy in May may grow beyond 33 and return bumping to the field.
''I'm not quite sure how many entries so far at Indy - 34? 35? A couple that have yet to be announced that I know that are out there,'' Rahal said. ''I think it's going to make for a very interesting May. Once again, you're going to get in the race because you earned it, not just because you showed up.''
Honda said earlier Friday it has committed so far to 17 engines and hinted at more coming. Servia's announcement, in a joint deal with Scuderia Corsa, makes it 31 announced entries. Pippa Mann, J.R. Hildebrand and Buddy Lazier - Indy 500 mainstays - have yet to announce deals. Same for Jay Howard, who drove for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports last year.
If all those drivers put together deals, the tension will return to qualifying for IndyCar's biggest race of the year. A driver has not been bumped out of the Indy 500 field since 2011 and qualifying procedures have since been changed to create a final shootout to set the front row. Rahal wouldn't mind if the bumping part of qualifying was done on Saturday, the first day, with the pole awarded on Sunday.
''I think bumping is important to the 500 because it's always been such a big part of the 500, the story, how many people failed, how many people made it at the last second,'' Rahal said. ''I think it absolutely adds to the folklore of the 500.''
Some 16 years after they first met as karting teammates in Canada, James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens are reunited in the same organization. Wickens will make his IndyCar debut on Sunday at St. Pete for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in an all-Canadian lineup.
While Hinchliffe is an IndyCar veteran, Wickens comes to the American series after a successful career racing in Europe. Wickens starred in DTM driving for Mercedes-AMG Motorsport with six wins, 15 podiums and five poles in 84 starts. After Mikhail Aleshin of Russia had difficulty returning to the U.S. after the 24 Hours of Le Mans last June, the team needed a replacement driver and Hinchcliffe recommended his friend.
Wickens drove two practices at Road America before Aleshin made it to Wisconsin. He thought his IndyCar career lasted all of one day, but Mercedes-Benz is leaving DTM at the end of this season and Wickens began preparing for his future. It led him to a full-time move to IndyCar alongside his old buddy.
''It's crazy today we are sitting here as teammates, as professional race car drivers in IndyCar,'' Wickens said. ''For so long, we both dreamed of being professional race car drivers. It just goes to show for any kid that you can't predict the future and have your ideal plan because in no way did I have an ideal career path to make my way into IndyCar at 28 years old. I'm living a childhood dream and it's pretty cool.''
HE SAID IT
Chip Ganassi said he was sleeping when a sanitation truck backed into his hospitality tent in the paddock at St. Pete. Asked what he said when informed of the messy disaster, Ganassi quipped: ''I've got to take a shower.''
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