- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Helio Castroneves has never won an IndyCar championship in 15 years of trying.
But on Sunday, he demonstrated why he's still Penske material.
Castroneves has won 27 races for team owner Roger Penske, including three Indianapolis 500s. Yet his most important victory may be the one he just claimed at the Edmonton Indy, where the 36-year-old Brazilian held off a charging Takuma Sato to win by 0.8367 of a second.
The win moved Castroneves into second place in the Izod IndyCar Series point standings, ahead of his Penske teammate Will Power and just 23 points behind championship leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, who finished seventh at Edmonton.
Power was the championship favorite in the eyes of many, and he did a masterful job to finish third on Sunday, driving through the field after starting 17th in a rare, caution-free IndyCar race.
Power's ascension into the IndyCar Series' most spectacular driver of the past three years has marked a changing of the guard within the Team Penske IndyCar operation. In that time, Castroneves endured a federal trial for tax evasion and struggled through a winless 2011 season, raising questions about his long-term future with the Penske organization.
He was involved in a few on-track controversies as well, most famously at Edmonton in 2010, when he was penalized for blocking on a restart while leading with five laps to go. His postrace meltdown on IndyCar security chief Charles Burns was memorably captured on video.
Maybe that's why Castroneves was even more amped up and energetic than usual (if you can believe that) in his postrace television interview Sunday, grabbing and shaking NBC Sports pit reporter Marty Snider while cracking a joke about having the 2010 Edmonton win taken away from him.
By the postrace press conference, he was more serious.
"At the end of the day, for us it was a great result, a result we were looking for a long time," he said. "Well deserved for the team and great for the championship as well.
"Joking around, my second win here. But today it counts."
Castroneves believed Edmonton owed him one. In four starts spread over two versions of the airport circuit, he finished second three times and crossed the line first on the other.
This year, he used an inspired strategy call to emerge in the lead, ahead of Sato following the final round of pit stops. The Japanese driver was never able to get close enough to attempt a pass over the final 20 laps.
"I feel experience, and I was definitely able to use that in my favor to win this race," Castroneves said. "I guess the fire is still inside. I won't stop. I will keep going as long as I can. I love what I do. I love racing and certainly I love to be where I'm at, as well.
"At the end of the day, you want to keep winning because that's what keeps driving us."
Power, who trails Castroneves by three points and Hunter-Reay by 26 in the quest for his first IndyCar Series championship, believes Castroneves has stepped it up a notch in 2012.
"He's stronger than ever this year," Power remarked. "He's been really consistent on days that he can't win. When he can win, he absolutely executes. Last year he was a bit erratic and people probably wrote him off a bit. He had a few incidents and had an all-around bad year.
"But if you go back a couple years, you understand he's always a guy in contention for a championship. To me it's not a surprise. He's definitely worked on driving details, adopted some of what I do, and I take some of what he does. So collectively we're faster."
Castroneves contended for the IndyCar Series championship right down to the final lap in 2002 but lost out to Sam Hornish Jr. He also went into the final round with a shot at the title in 2003, 2006 and 2009.
It's going to be nail-biting until the end. It'll be a heckuva shootout at Fontana, and I'll bet it'll come down to a fight between three cars.
”-- Ryan Hunter-Reay
He scored one of his earliest race wins in a CART-sanctioned race in 2000 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the next venue on the IndyCar Series schedule.
Castroneves has also won at the road course at Sonoma, Calif., and he is one of the few drivers in the IndyCar field with experience at Auto Club Speedway, site of the 500-mile IndyCar Series finale in mid-September.
Is a Castroneves championship finally in the cards?
"I never felt we were outside of the box of this championship," he said. "We are always there, maybe playing a little bit quiet and silent. Which I like, because in other years we were aggressive.
"We'll continue to work in that low profile, and at the end of the day at Fontana, that's the day that counts."
It's shaping up as a classic three-way battle for the IndyCar championship, though Dixon (61 points back) heads a list of seven other drivers who could still conceivably steal the crown.
But it looks like a shootout between the Chevrolet-powered entries of Hunter-Reay, Castroneves and Power.
"Helio is strong, Hunter-Reay is strong, I thought Dixon might be there in the mix," observed Power. "Man, it's going to be a fight to the very end. Helio is definitely doing a good job. He's going to be tough to beat."
Hunter-Reay concurs. RHR was one of the drivers Power passed during the second round of pit stops in what was only the fourth caution-free IndyCar Series race since 2000.
The Andretti Autosport team leader qualified on the pole, but started 11th because of an engine change penalty.
"We expected yellows today -- maybe lots of them -- but we just didn't get them," said Hunter-Reay after finishing seventh. "I was praying for a caution and it didn't come. But we've had enough go our way this year that I'm not gonna whine about not getting a yellow."
He added: "It's going to be nail-biting until the end. It'll be a heckuva shootout at Fontana, and I'll bet it'll come down to a fight between three cars."
Based on that prediction, two of those cars will come out of the Team Penske stable -- Power and Castroneves. But Castroneves doesn't see that as being an issue.
"To be honest, that's a good problem to have, especially for the team," he said. "I had this situation before with Sam [Hornish Jr.] and with Gil [de Ferran] battling with my teammates for the championship. Maybe with Will, this might be his first time, but I've been in this position. So I don't see a problem at all.
"I actually want it, because that means I know what he's got. Sometimes you know what you need to do to beat your enemy, let's put it this way. Certainly Will is an incredible talent. We've all seen that. And Ryan has fantastic momentum right now.
"But at the end of the day, it's all about being there. Right now I'm still playing it cool, man. I just want to make sure we keep doing what we're doing."