Race Weekend Central

2009 Indy 500 Breakdown: From Zero to Hero for Helio Castroneves

In a Nutshell: Helio Castroneves, just recently returned to the track after acquittal on tax evasion charges, probably gave the IRL the feel-good story of the year at Indianapolis. Taking the lead away from Scott Dixon with just under 60 laps to go, he never gave it up in coasting to his third Indy 500 win. An emotional Castroneves, who started from the pole, also scored a record 15th victory in the big race for team owner Roger Penske. Dan Wheldon finished second, followed by Danica Patrick in third, Townsend Bell fourth and Will Power rounding out the top five.

Who Should Have Won: Anyone who was driving for Penske or Chip Ganassi, the two reigning super-teams in the IndyCar Series. Just look at the leaderboard for proof. Four guys led this race: two of them drove for Roger Penske and two of them for Chip Ganassi. There were some great runs from other teams and the big four didn’t sweep the top five after some problems on pit road for several of them; but when it comes right down to it, they still have a firm hold on things in this series while everyone else is just playing catch up.

The Good

It doesn’t get any better for Castroneves. When the season started, Castroneves was sitting in a courtroom instead of a racecar. The tax-evasion trial he endured was so serious, he had no idea if he’d ever race again or if, instead, he’d be spending his remaining driving years in federal prison. But through it all, team owner Roger Penske stood by his star driver and promised to return him to his car as soon as he was able.

Penske came through and so did Castroneves, finishing second in his return to the track at Long Beach and following that up with the perfect month of May. Castroneves sat on the pole, won the pit-stop competition and followed it up with his third Indy 500 victory.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a hard-fought day. Although he started up front, Castroneves faded some in the middle part of the race, but he and the team continued to work hard to get the car just right. The efforts paid off and they made the big comeback when it counted, just the same as Castroneves did this season as a whole. And if you think all of this sounds like the plot for a Hollywood movie, well… it does. Maybe those super happy endings we see on the big screen are possible.

Only one little side note on this – possibly more suited for the ugly section – but what was up with the race officials trying to hold Castroneves in the car and preventing him from doing his famous fence climb? I’m sure ABC could spare a precious few minutes since they were already going to run late; and honestly, the crowd on hand would likely have torn that speedway to shreds if they’d been denied that fence climb.

The Bad

As in bad luck. In this case, the famous Andretti luck. Marco Andretti finished second in his first outing in the 500, but hasn’t done as well ever since. At least Mario won the big show once before the bad luck thing started; unfortunately, his grandson endured the pain of losing one on the final lap to Sam Hornish Jr. before things went downhill.

This year was worse than ever for poor Marco. He was in the wall before the end of the first lap when the car of Mario Moraes, who had started inside of Andretti on the inside of row three, drifted high and carried him into the outside wall. ABC race announcer Eddie Cheever summed it up well when he said the National Anthem lasted longer than Andretti’s race.

How contagious is that Andretti luck? Tony Kanaan, who drives for Michael Andretti’s Andretti Green Racing Team, hasn’t fared well at Indy either, and he too crashed when something in his car broke on lap 98. The Brazilian, who wrecked out of last year’s event as well, failed to lead a lap at Indy for the first time in eight career starts.

The Ugly

Vitor Meira clearly had the worst day of anyone in the field at Indianapolis. First, it was a nasty pit fire that engulfed his entire No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing entry on lap 134. The fire was extinguished without damage to car or driver, but anyone who saw how it was put out had to wonder if the guy was stuck sloshing around in a puddle inside his car after that.

As it turned out, it seems the blaze would be the better part of Meira’s day. On lap 174, Meira locked wheels with Raphael Matos, sending both cars hard into the outside wall at speed with Meira’s car getting caught up on the SAFER barrier and sliding on its right side all the way through turn 1 before coming back down on its wheels and sliding to a stop. Meira was transported to nearby Methodist Hospital, where at press time he was awake and alert but complaining of lower-back pain and was sent for further evaluation.

Other Notables

Talk about dedication. Driver Alex Lloyd’s very pregnant wife was in the team’s pit stall watching her husband at work. What’s remarkable about that is that she was experiencing contractions the entire time. Mrs. Lloyd was amazingly calm, saying she and the team had decided not to mention it so that Alex could concentrate on his race and that she’d be just fine to wait until afterwards unless her contractions suddenly started coming closer together.

19-year-old Graham Rahal crashed on lap 56 in his second Indy 500. He crashed on lap 36 in his first Indy 500 last year. He had the exact same accident both times, veering high to get around slower traffic coming through turn 4 which sent him off the racing line and into the outside wall. At this rate, he’ll finish his first Indy 500 in eight years.

Random Thoughts and the Truly Odd

Danica Patrick finished third, her best career finish at Indianapolis and the best-ever finish for a woman. She finished fourth as a rookie in 2005. Patrick now has four top-10 finishes at Indianapolis in five starts.

The three female drivers in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 field completed 599 laps out of a possible 600. Patrick finished 200 laps, Sarah Fisher 200 laps and Milka Duno 199 laps as all of them wound up in the top 20.

Alex Tagliani was the highest-finishing rookie in the field, finishing 11th after starting 33rd.

A record 19 cars finished on the lead lap in the 2009 Indianapolis 500. The previous record for most cars finishing on the lead lap is 16 in 1959.

This is the 11th time car number No. 3 has won the Indianapolis 500, the most times ever for an individual car number.

AJ Foyt IV finished 16th and completed the full 500-mile distance. This is the first time a Foyt finished on the lead lap since 1979 when his grandfather, four-time winner AJ Foyt Jr., finished on the lead lap in second place.

19th-place finisher John Andretti completed the full 500-mile distance, as did 16th-place finisher No. 41 Foyt IV. Surprisingly enough, this is the only time a Foyt and an Andretti completed the full 500-mile distance in the same race. Keep in mind the Foyt family was first represented in the 1958 Indianapolis 500 while the Andretti family was first represented in 1965.


“This is incredible. I think my tears speak for everything. What a great team. I just have to thank, first of all, the Lord for giving me this opportunity, to be strong, to have a family that I have. I have to think Roger [Penske], Tim [Cindric], my guys, Phillip Morris, all the associates [sponsors], Verizon, everybody because they gave my life back. I’m here today because of those guys. And obviously the fans. You guys don’t understand. You guys kept me strong. You guys are the best. I’m honored to have fans like you. Thank you so much. Let’s celebrate now.” – Helio Castroneves

“It’s totally disappointing. I should have been smarter than that. That kid (Moraes) is in way over his head with where he is now. I’m sitting next to him and he just drives up into me. There was no one in sight of him. I should have known better.” – Marco Andretti

“I’m incredibly excited. Unfortunately, we didn’t have quite enough for Helio [Castroneves] and the whole Penske organization. They should be very proud. I have to say, there’s not many races that I’ve done in my career where I can honestly say that the team executed 100%. And I have to say they did today. The National Guard Panther Racing pit crew were phenomenal.” – Dan Wheldon

Roger got me up to second, behind Helio, and the car felt awesome. I really thought I had a car to win with, but we just didn’t have enough fuel. What a story Helio is. It’s just incredible. It’s just unbelievable for him. I’m so happy for Helio. It’s just a Cinderella story. He’s like a newborn kid and on top of the world.” – Ryan Briscoe

“The Boost Mobile/Motorola guys did a great job in the pits today and we had great stops all day. I had a really strong car for the last few stints and would have loved to see the last 35 laps raced green. I know we would have had no issues making it to the end without stopping. I was happy to keep the No. 7 car up front toward the end of the day. It was a great race for the fans and I’m happy for Helio [Castroneves]; he was super fast all day.” – Danica Patrick

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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