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Helio Castroneves' chase for a fourth Indianapolis 500 lasted over a decade.
Castroneves became a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 2009 when he started on the pole and led 66 laps. That victory followed wins in 2001 and 2002 — his first two races at Indianapolis — and was his eighth top-10 finish in nine races.
A fourth Indy 500 — or a fifth or a sixth — felt inevitable at the time.
That inevitability got less and less likely with each passing year after 2014. Castroneves finished second that year to Ryan Hunter-Reay after Hunter-Reay passed him for the win with less than five laps to go.
2014 felt like the last best chance for Castroneves to win the 500. He led just 35 laps over the next three races and then didn’t lead a lap in any of the 2018, 2019 or 2020 Indianapolis 500s.
Those three races came during the part-time phase of Castroneves’ IndyCar career. Team Penske started a sports car team in 2018, and Castroneves became one of the team’s drivers. That deal included annual runs in the Indianapolis 500 and a couple other races. Castroneves ran just seven IndyCar races over the previous three seasons. The twilight of his IndyCar career was near.
And Sunday showed it was a hell of a sunset.
Castroneves led 20 laps on Sunday on his way to tying A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser for the most Indy 500 wins. And he became the first man to win his four IndyCar races with multiple teams.
With Penske’s IMSA team gone and its IndyCar stable full, the team didn’t have a place for Castroneves in 2021. With his desire to run Indianapolis still burning, he found a team in Meyer Shank Racing for the 500.
While Meyer Shank’s IMSA teams have been some of the most successful in the series, the team hadn’t won an IndyCar race since it entered the series in 2017. It was easy to see on the surface how Castroneves’ 21st Indy 500 was going to end without a win like his previous 11 had.
Castroneves didn’t share that belief. Always the optimist, he said after Sunday’s race that he knew that he could get his fourth win in his first race at Indianapolis — and his first IndyCar race period — for a team not named Team Penske.
"Because when I change from Penske to [team owner Mike Shank], when Mike said, 'We're going to do everything we can to put you over there,' I believe him," Castroneves said. "When I walk into the garage, I see all the graphics they did. I notice they're doing everything they can to win this race.
"I believe it. I saw the technical part with Andretti [Autosport]. They want to win, for sure. They had fast cars many, many years. So I knew I would have a good opportunity. I just got to find it. Sunday after qualifying, I found it, I was like, 'Now we just got to make things happen here.'
"I never stopped dreaming. I never stopped believing it. I'm so glad I did that because I want to know those young kids, sometimes they think hard work doesn't pay off. It's just proof you still can believe in yourself and make yourself better."
Shank's words were backed up by what Castroneves felt in his car after qualifying. He wasn't one of the stars of Friday's Carb Day practice, but that was by design.
"To be honest, I felt that my car was very good since after qualifying, after that practice. I knew it was very good," Castroneves said. "I felt the car great. I told Mike, I said, 'Mike, don't touch it, the car is really good.' Then Carb Day, I didn't want to run much. We wanted to do some pit stops. Remember, this is the first time we're running. It's a little bit of timing, understanding. Even myself, I need to be understanding what the group needs."
Shank admitted that he didn't really understand what Castroneves was doing during the race until it was well past the halfway point. Castroneves had a car that hung with the lead group all day but he never led more than six laps at a time. That was by design. Cars are faster in the draft and, more importantly, they use less fuel with less air resistance.
"Kind of around [lap] 140, 150, I'm looking at him," Shank said. "Finally, I figured out about 155 he's doing this on purpose. Everything he did from 150 on was a chess match. He knew exactly what he was doing. That's the GOAT in him."
Once Shank figured out what Castroneves was doing, he became confident that his team was going to get its first IndyCar win.
"When I figured out he had this planned, I got a real weird calmness over me," Shank said. "I thought, he is stalking this guy and he's going to pounce. Then we had some traffic right after that, and the race was over at that point. Once he got around that, that was it.
"But three laps to go, I looked right at [team co-owner Jim Meyer], he's looking at me, I'm like, 'We got this. I think we can do this actually.'"
Castroneves was the opposite of calm when he emerged from his car. He climbed the catch fence multiple times. He embraced anyone he saw. He seemed like he couldn't comprehend what had just happened — even though he said always knew that it could.
That belief is why it's easy to see Castroneves going for a fifth Indy 500 in the years to come. He spent 12 years chasing a fourth and continues to say how he wants to keep racing. It'll be a stunner if he's not attempting the 2022 Indianapolis 500 — though Castroneves said that he didn't want to think about the chase for the sole Indy 500 wins record just yet.
"Let's enjoy this first, then we talk about five a week later," he said.
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