A seventh-place finish is not usually something that Helio Castroneves celebrates.
But, Sunday at Long Beach, he could hardly have been happier just to be racing. Where the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and last year's IndyCar Series runner-up finished was far less important.
"It was awesome," said the Brazilian, who was able to return to the IndyCar Series after being acquitted of federal tax evasion charges on Friday in a Miami courtroom.
When he practiced in his No. 3 Team Penske car here Saturday, it was the first time in a race car for Castroneves since the 2008 season ended last October in Australia.
But Castroneves, who was welcomed back wholeheartedly by the big
crowd, insisted he didn't have any butterflies in his stomach before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
"I slept like a baby last night," he said. "I would say I was tired from practice. I think my mind finally (it) was sinking in that I was in Long Beach.
"I woke up really well rested and said, `Wow.' I slept with a smile on my face."
The biggest concern for Castroneves Sunday was his physical condition. He said he was stiff and sore after being in the car for a total of about 90 minutes on Saturday.
"I was fine today," he said, grinning. "I feel great. It was a great feeling to be back in the race rhythm. And the crowd was great. They really made me feel good to be back."
He even led three laps in the middle of the race before an ill-timed caution flag cost him a shot at a higher finish.
"It was interesting. The car, the tires, handling. ... But that dang yellow (flag)," he said. "I'm still upset a little bit about it. It would have been a great finish. But seventh is still very good."
Castroneves, who was indicted last October and had to go through a seven-week trial before the ordeal ended, said the experience has left what he called "a scar." But he added, "It's going to make me appreciate things I never appreciate in the past. I do believe I am a better person today. And I just want to continue racing."
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