LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Helio Castroneves said it felt unreal as he prepared to drive his No. 3 Team Penske IndyCar onto the temporary street circuit in downtown Long Beach on Saturday.
"Is this a dream?" the Brazilian driver asked Penske Racing president Tim Cindric.
"No, it's a reality," Cindric replied. "There's a lot of people watching, so don't stall it."
Castroneves was back in his office, exactly where he needed to be after undergoing months of uncertainty and a seven-week trial in Miami on federal tax evasion charges that could have resulted in up to six years in prison.
The 33-year-old was back in his race car, nearly 3,000 miles from the courtroom and less than 24 hours after being acquitted of everything except a charge of conspiracy, which resulted in a hung jury.
The jury also acquitted Katiucia Castroneves, his 35-year-old sister and business manager, on the tax evasion counts but also hung on the conspiracy charge. Michigan motorsports attorney Alan Miller, 71, was acquitted on all three counts of tax evasion and one count of conspiracy.
The government could choose to retry Castroneves and his sister on the conspiracy charges, but there was no time for such speculation at Long Beach, where he spent most of his time outside the race car hugging friends and accepting congratulations on his return.
The day didn't end quite as well as it began when Castroneves spun in qualifying and hit one of the concrete barriers lining the 1.97-mile, 11-turn course for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He qualified eighth in the 23-car field but came away from the crash complaining of a headache.
Dr. Mike Olinger, the IRL's director of medical services, said there was no evidence of a concussion but added that Castroneves would be evaluated again before the race Sunday morning.
Team owner Roger Penske, who never wavered in his support for Castroneves after he was indicted last October, was also ecstatic.
"We won one of the biggest races that we've ever had to get Helio back in this car," Penske said while sitting alongside Castroneves and Cindric at a news conference. "Certainly Helio's gone through a chapter of this book that I'm sure he wants to close.
"To me, it's over. He's back where he wants to be. He's a great race car driver, he's been a great ambassador for our team and, as I've said, he doesn't have a bad bone in his body."
Only minutes earlier, Castroneves had climbed out of his car after driving it for the first time since finishing seventh in the non-points IndyCar Series finale Oct. 26 in Australia. He was seventh fastest in 60 minutes of practice in the morning.
"It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare," Castroneves said, his voice breaking. He paused and covered his eyes for a moment to regain his composure.
"Everybody knows I'm an emotional person," said the Brazilian, who gained fame outside auto racing after winning the "Dancing with the Stars" TV show in 2007. "To go through this with my family has been very difficult. So many people sent messages and prayers. Sometimes I questioned a little bit, but I never lost faith. And now my life is starting over."
Castroneves, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and last year's IndyCar Series runner-up to champion Scott Dixon, missed the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, where temporary replacement Will Power finished fifth. Power was also fastest in Friday's Long Beach practice while driving the No. 3.
But Penske told Castroneves repeatedly that there would be a car waiting for him as soon as he could return.
"We talked Monday or Tuesday and Roger said, 'Don't worry, the car will be waiting for you in Long Beach,'" Castroneves said.
Power, who will also drive for Team Penske in next month's Indy 500, moved to a new No. 12 Dallara. The Australian didn't slow down a bit, winning the pole for the race, which he won last year when it was part of the now-defunct Champ Car World Series.
"He knew the situation and he was actually very supportive of the outcome," Castroneves said of his newest teammate. "This morning, I spoke to Will and he said, 'Hey man, the car is ready for you. It's really fast.'"
Ryan Briscoe, the third Team Penske driver and the winner at St. Petersburg, will start 10th on Sunday.
While there was speculation that rushing Castroneves from Miami on Penske's private jet just hours after the trial ended was pushing the driver too hard after such an emotional stretch, Castroneves said he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
"I never felt so comfortable getting in a car," he said, grinning. "The best place for me to fix and heal this scar is to be here. Whenever I put this helmet on, I'm a different person.
"It's pedal to the metal."