Saturday, May 24, 2003 Updated: May 25, 8:51 AM ET
Castroneves goes for No. 3 at Indy
By Robin Miller Special to ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- There's a major star's swan song, a daily double, several impressive comebacks and an engine war. But the main storyline going into Sunday's 87th Indianapolis 500 is still Helio Castroneves and his quest to stay unbeaten.
While Michael Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Gil de Ferran are certainly a big part of the plot, along with Toyota vs. Honda, it's Castroneves' stage heading into the green flag.
The 28-year-old Brazilian is trying to outrun 32 competitors and history as he goes for his third consecutive victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Four drivers, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich and Al Unser, were in position for a three-peat and all were thwarted. Shaw crashed in 1941 while leading, Rose broke down in 1949, Vuky was out in front when he lost his life in 1955 and Unser finished second in 1972.
"I've learned a lot about history this month and I try not to think about it all the time, but it's tough because that's what everybody wants to talk about," said Castroneves, who beat his teammate de Ferran in 2001 and took a controversial decision from Paul Tracy last May that wasn't official until Indy Racing League officials denied a protest from Tracy's team.
"My main goal is trying to focus on the race, not what has happened in the past, but obviously winning three in a row would be fantastic. We just need to put ourselves in position again to make it happen."
Nobody has a better chance, team or seat than Castroneves, who earned the pole position with a run of 231.725 mph in Roger Penske's Dallara/Toyota. Team Penske owns a record 12 Indy wins and has no peer in preparation.
"Roger is the best at Indianapolis and Helio has a lot of talent so it's certainly within their grasp," said Emerson Fittipaldi, the two-time Indy and Formula One champion who scored his second win here for Penske.
"It's hard to win Indy once, let alone three times in a row, but they look very strong to me."
Castroneves chasing the record has overshadowed Andretti's final Indy-car start. The 40-year-old veteran is ending his 19-year career following his 14th Indy 500, a race he's led for 398 laps but never won.
Castroneves starts from the pole on Sunday.
"I never wanted to race much past 40 or 41 and I'm very comfortable with my decision," said the all-time winner (42 victories) in Championship Auto Racing Teams who bought Barry Green's CART team and brought it to the IRL this year.
"It's becoming more and more competitive out there but I still feel like I've got a good shot at finally winning this thing." Andretti starts 13th in the 33-car field.
One of the four drivers in the Andretti-Green stable is also hoping to make history. Gordon starts on the outside of the front row at Indy in his Dallara/Honda and then hustles to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 in his full-time Winston Cup ride. Nobody has ever won half of this doubleheader, let alone a sweep, but the former open-wheel regular is optimistic.
"We've got our fingers crossed the weather will cooperate," said Gordon, who has tried this "douoble" three times previously and came close to an Indy win in 1999 before pitting for fuel while leading with two laps left. "It's not easy to win the Indy 500 but it's a lot easier with a car that is prepared like ours.
"I'm more confident than I've ever been at this place."
Kanaan is one of the IRL's walking wounded who's made a splendid comeback after breaking his left wrist in a nasty accident four weeks ago at Motegi, Japan. He's qualified another Andretti-Green car in the middle of Row 1 and been quick all month.
"I damaged the muscles but I have the best doctor in the business (Terry Trammell) and I did 12 hours of therapy a day and I feel great," said the 28-year-old Brazilian, who's got two poles, one win and led the most laps in his initial season of IRL competition.
"This is a fantastic team and we've got the best of everything so I'm looking forward to the race."
Dixon, who suffered a broken right wrist and fractured pelvis in that crash with Kanaan, also bounced back quickly and qualified fourth fastest in Chip Ganassi's G-Force/Toyota.
"I haven't had any problems and my car has been very consistent," said the 22-year-old New Zealander, who captured the IRL season opener.
Neither Kanaan or Dixon missed any racing but de Ferran couldn't run Japan because he broke bones in his neck and back, plus incurred a concussion. But he qualified Penske's other car in 10th spot.
The 35-year-old Brazilian feels like he's one of 10 or 11 drivers with a good chance at winning.
"There's more depth here than we've seen in a long time and a lot of guys with a genuine shot at winning," said de Ferran. "Even guys starting further back than me have a shot."
Kenny Brack lines up sixth in Team Rahal's Dallara/Honda and the 1999 Indy winner expects a battle royale.
"I suspect it will be a little bit of follow the leader for a while because from what I've seen there are a lot of cars very similar in speed," he said. "It's going to be a tough race to win."
But it appears it's a private duel between Honda and Toyota. The first-year IRL engine manufacturers own the first 17 slots on the grid, have won all three races in 2003 and led almost every lap of competition.
Two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. has yet to win or even contend in '03, as his underpowered Chevrolet is proving to be a burden. He's the highest-qualifying Chevy and starts 18th but was almost six mph behind Castroneves in qualifying.
"We're pretty good in race trim and it's a long race so we'll just give it our best shot," he said.