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Thursday, November 20, 2008
Castroneves' uncertain future putting the pinch on Team Penske

By John Oreovicz
Special to

An individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty in the American justice system, but that notion is of little comfort to Helio Castroneves.

Or Roger Penske.

Castroneves, who is one of the IndyCar Series' top stars, is set to stand trial on March 2 on charges of tax evasion and conspiracy to commit fraud against the United States government.

Happier times: Helio Castroneves, right, and Roger Penske celebrate a second consecutive Indianapolis 500 victory in 2002.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Donald A. Graham denied Castroneves' and Team Penske's motion to delay the proceedings until November so Castroneves could fulfill his contractual obligations to compete in the 2009 IndyCar Series championship. The IndyCar season starts with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from April 3-5.

Castroneves' trial is unlikely to last more than a week, but what happens if the outcome is unfavorable to the usually bubbly Brazilian? Can Penske risk waiting on the verdict before he looks for a replacement for his lead driver, a month before the start of the season?

Conventional wisdom says no. And Penske recently said that a decision will be made within 30 days.

It's a tough call for "The Captain," who often talks about the value of "human capital." Penske has a lot of that invested in Castroneves, who has been a fixture at Team Penske's open-wheel operation through nine years and three teammates. Helio learned the ropes from Gil de Ferran from 2000-03, then ran wheel-to-wheel with three-time IndyCar series champion Sam Hornish Jr. for four years before assuming a team-leader role when Ryan Briscoe came on board this year. He's popular with the team, the public and the sponsors at Altria Corp.

At the same time, Penske abhors controversy, and he will want his flagship open-wheel team to enter the new season at full strength. If Castroneves' availability is in doubt -- and it most certainly is -- Penske will want to have a solid backup plan in place.

Penske said last week at a sponsorship function at Auto Club Speedway in California that his phone is "ringing off the hook" with drivers interested in taking over Castroneves' No. 3 car.

"It's a difficult time for us, because if he's not available to drive next season, then we have to go find ourselves a driver at a very late time," Penske said. "But until he's not available to drive the car, we're going to stand behind him."

It's ironic that Castroneves landed his Penske ride through the misfortune of another when Greg Moore -- Penske's intended Y2K teammate for de Ferran -- was killed in the 1999 CART finale. Now another driver could find himself benefiting from Castroneves' plight.

Penske is a busy man, so I've taken the liberty of assembling a list of potential candidates to replace Castroneves. It takes time for any team to adapt to a new driver, but Penske wouldn't go wrong with any of these choices -- some of whom are admittedly more far-fetched than others...