Thursday, May 21, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | Helio Castroneves always has had a zest for life.

But after he was acquitted of tax evasion charges last month, that love of life and auto racing has gone into overdrive.

Nearly five weeks removed from a tumultuous six months, Castroneves is again a factor for the Indianapolis 500. He is on the pole for Sunday’s 93rd edition of open wheel’s most famous race and among the favorites to win.

“I did see myself coming back to Indianapolis, trying to focus about it,” Castroneves said. “Even if it would be for one race, you know, I was always thinking about I’ve got to be in Indianapolis. Plus, I was concerned about how long the trial was going to last. So there was a lot of thinking.”

“But it’s been very special, no question about it.”

Last year at this time, Castroneves rode a wave of publicity from his win on “Dancing with the Stars” and was one of the IndyCar Series’ most popular and respected drivers.

But all of that was threatened to be taken away during the six-week trial in Miami, where Castroneves was accused of working with his sister and lawyer to evade more than $2.3 million in U.S. income taxes. After six days of deliberations, he was acquitted of six counts of tax evasion while the jury was hung on one count of conspiracy.

Until his acquittal April 17, no one knew whether Castroneves would chase his third win here. And if he did, it was difficult to determine how much of a factor he would be because he hadn’t raced since October.

He answered those questions quickly. Two days after his acquittal he placed seventh at Long Beach and then followed that the next week with a second-place finish at Kansas and the pole at Indy.

“I tell you, that was the best medicine,” Castroneves said of returning to racing. “All of a sudden I was able to do what I love. That’s what I know to do since I was 11 years old. That’s what I love. It’s racing.”

Besides even more of a love of life, Castroneves said he has developed a thicker skin, and he has taken plenty of ribbing from Penske Racing president Tim Cindric.

When asked what he has seen from Castronveves, Cindric joked: “First of all, I’d like to say his English has gotten a lot better hanging out with all those attorneys. He’s going on and on and actually sounds good. He used to only know about 50 words of English, but he’s continued to move that along.

“But in terms of where he’s at, I think he’s had an opportunity to win the last, you know, two races that he’s been in. So I can’t say enough about his focus, his concentration.”

Castroneves has seven top-10 finishes in his last eight Indianapolis 500s. In 2006, an accident relegated him to 25th. He is also the only driver to win Indy in his first two starts (2001-02).

His greatest threat to a third win might be teammate Ryan Briscoe, who will start second. Both have a chance to give Roger Penske his 15th Indy victory as a car owner.

“Helio is really back on his game. He was out for a while, obviously, but the team stood by him 100 percent,” Penske said. “Ryan has more confidence this year. To me, we’ve got drivers that can win the race.”

Castroneves ran 100 laps Sunday in one of the final practice sessions. The teams will get one more practice session Friday during Carb Day.

“We are trying new things here and there to prepare for race day,” Castroneves said. “We’re going to continue to work, and I feel really good with what we’ve accomplished so far.”

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