For a month, Helio Castroneves has looked as good as he ever has on the racetrack.
And the fence.
“Yeah. Before, I was just going and running out of breath,” he said of his traditional victory celebration — the climbing of the catch fence on the frontstretch. “Now, I’m able to at least take my time, not rush into it.
“So, yes. I am a better fence climber.”
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And, perhaps, a better championship contender.
Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 champion, has never won an IndyCar series championship. But he sits in second place in the points standings, 19 behind leader Will Power, as the series comes to Fort Worth for the Firestone 600 on Saturday night.
At 39, he is perhaps poised to put together his best run for a championship. He has a powerhouse organization, Team Penske, behind him. He is coming off a runner-up finish in a dazzling sprint to the line at the Indianapolis 500 and a fifth and a first at Detroit last weekend.
And with 13 years of series experience behind him, including three runner-up finishes for the title, he has seen what works and doesn’t work. He knows himself and his car as well as anyone can.
“I think I’m becoming wiser, I guess, with the age,” he said. “I’ve been able to pay attention to the small details. I’ve been able to work with the engineers better than before. It makes a big difference.”
Penske teammate Power can sense something happening around Castroneves, who comes to Fort Worth as the defending race champion. Last year, Castroneves led more than half the race and won by almost five seconds, an eternity in the IndyCar series.
“My teammate absolutely destroyed the field last year,” Power said. “Yeah, he’ll be there. I mean, he’s very consistent. He’s gotten better in his old age — I don’t know how.”
The line drew a laugh from reporters.
“Gives me hope,” Power said. “He’s just very strong. He’s gotten strong. The guy has a passion for winning and motorsports itself, which, this sport is very tough on you. A guy like him that hasn’t won a championship, he’s been so close, yeah, he’ll be a contender this year. He’s relentless.
“To me, he’s better than when I first turned up on the scene, for sure. Definitely better.”
Almost immediately after hopping out of his winning car at Detroit last week, Castroneves had TMS on his mind.
“I’m already thinking about Texas,” he said. “We are on it. We’re not playing around.”
Castroneves’ victory last weekend gave him 29 for his career, tying him with Rick Mears for 11th all-time in IndyCar.
But Castroneves has collected plenty of numbers. He is trying to finish at the top when the season ends at Fontana in August.
“Before, I used to think about No. 1, No. 1, No. 1,” he said. “Now, I think about what it takes to get to No. 1, what to do to get to No. 1 and make it happen.”
He is getting closer.
Helio Castroneves is off to one of the best starts of his career, with four podium finishes in seven races. The rundown of his seven-race numbers this year compared with his best finishes in the points standings: