Helio Castroneves’ reverse psychology worked.
He arrived at Texas Motor Speedway saying if he didn’t get a win all year but won the IndyCar Series championship, he’d be just fine with it — like the golfer who says he’ll take par all day long if it wins the tournament.
He’s got a birdie now.
Castroneves powered past the field over the final half of the race and won the Firestone 550 Saturday night, becoming the winningest IndyCar driver at TMS and taking the series lead.
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The exuberant 38-year-old Brazilian, whom American race fans also know as a Dancing with the Stars champion and a three-time Indy 500 winner, climbed the fence, danced on his car in Victory Lane and hugged everyone in sight.
“Texas is awesome! I love this place!” he said.
Of course, he does. The 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth has given Castroneves four victories, nine top-5s and 12 top-10s — all more than any other IndyCar driver.
And the victory put Castroneves, who has never won a series championship, 22 points ahead of Marco Andretti in the driver standings.
“We want to win races,” Castroneves said. “It doesn’t matter at what point that happens or who is where.”
IndyCar and TMS, hoping to show off a close race in a series that has provided the closest finishes in the track’s history, got nothing like that from this race. Castroneves won by 4.6919 seconds over runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay, and third-place Tony Kanaan was another seven seconds back.
“The car was absolutely unreal,” Castroneves said. “Honestly, we were running like a Swiss watch.”
But the race did turn into a clinic from the veteran Castroneves, more experienced than anyone at TMS. He showed a mastery of the track, his tires and the slightly reduced downforce that put pressure on the drivers’ ability to maneuver.
“That was interesting,” said Hunter-Reay, who led his first laps in seven starts at TMS. “I was searching around for grip. You were just searching everywhere for grip. I had so many catches out there that I thought were going into the wall.”
Kanaan, who moved into fourth place in the series standings, said, “It was a long night. I think Ryan said it all. It was a difficult race at times. I had my hands full.”
But for Castroneves and team owner Roger Penske, whose powerhouse operation had been shut out of Victory Lane all season, the long night ended in celebration — well-deserved for Castroneves, from Penske’s point of view.
“That’s why we love him and the fans love him,” Penske said. “Because he’s so inspirational. And certainly delivered it today. You don’t win the Indy 500 three times if you’re not a great driver. He brought a lot of savvy to our team. He deserves all that he got tonight.”
An hour after the race, speaking to reporters, Castroneves continued to joke with fellow drivers, series officials and track president Eddie Gossage.
But he said he can’t relax. He said the victory and series lead aren’t enough for him to take the pressure off himself.
“At this point, we’ve got to keep moving on,” he said. “Right now, tonight, tomorrow, we celebrate a little bit. But Monday, we’ve got to turn the page and focus on the next race.”
And maybe give regular psychology a chance.