Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, smiles as he answers a question at a press conference in preparation for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Thursday, May 21, 2009. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Pumping his fist as he took the checkered flag and breaking down in tears when he was done, Helio Castroneves capped a perfect month of May with the biggest win of all Sunday at the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves became the ninth driver to win the historic race three times, and his timing couldn't have been better. Just 5½ weeks ago, he was acquitted of most charges at a federal tax evasion trial, and the remaining count was thrown out on Friday.
Instead of going to prison for as long as six years, Castroneves pulled his red-and-white machine into Victory Lane at the Brickyard. No wonder he was sobbing when team owner Roger Penske leaned in to give him a hug.
Castroneves completed a clean sweep of every Indy prize, also claiming the pole position and winning the pit-stop competition. Throw in the federal government's decision to drop the last of the tax charges just minutes before he went out for the final practice, and "this is the best month of May ever," said Castroneves, now only one win away from joining the most elite group of all: four-time Indy winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Castroneves pulled away over the final laps to beat Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick, who eclipsed her historic fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005 by crossing the strip of bricks in third.
Patrick, however, was never really a factor.
This day belonged to Castroneves, who pumped his fist all the way down the final straightaway.
"I want to climb the fence," said the driver known as "Spiderman," referring to his signature celebration.
Then he did just that, climbing out of his car after the victory lap and scaling the fence along the main grandstand with his pit crew. Someone tossed him a green-and-yellow Brazilian flag.
The victory was clearly popular with the quarter of a million fans who turned out on a sweltering late spring day and were on their feet, cheering and waving these caps as Castroneves sped around the 2.5-mile oval for the final time.
"You guys kept me strong," Castroneves told the crowd. "You guys are the best. I'm honored to have fans like you.
"Let's celebrate now!"
Crashes took out some of the biggest names in the field, including Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. The most frightening wreck occurred on lap 173, when Brazilians Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos got together going into the first turn.
Meira's car veered head-on into the padded outside wall. He was removed from the car, put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital complaining of severe lower-back pain.
The lengthy caution period ensured that everyone had enough fuel to get to the finish. When the race restarted with 17 laps to go, Castroneves got a great jump on Wheldon and Patrick and pulled away to win by nearly 2 seconds, more than two football fields.
"I had a really good car," Patrick said. "Oh well, what are you going to do?"
Added Wheldon, "At the end, I just didn't have enough for Helio."
It was clear from the start that Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing had the strongest cars. Castroneves led 66 laps and teammate Ryan Briscoe ran out front for 11. On the Ganassi side, defending 500 champion Scott Dixon set the pace for a race-best 73 laps, while his teammate Dario Franchitti, who won in 2007 and returned to Indy this year after a disappointing foray into stock cars, led the other 50.
Dixon's powerful car lost its edge near the end of the more than three-hour race and he slipped back to sixth, failing to become the first driver since Castroneves in 2001-02 to win back-to-back 500s. Franchitti had a problem in the pits late in the race and couldn't make up the lost ground, settling for seventh.
Two drivers who don't even have full-time rides in the IndyCar series crossed the line behind Patrick. Townsend Bell was fourth, while Will Power -- who filled in while Castroneves was on trial -- finished fifth in a third Team Penske car.
It may have been a perfect month for Castroneves, but it wasn't a perfect race. He had problems with his radio all day, and there were gearbox issues when he came into the pits. But he knew what to do on the track.
"Once I got in front, it was never look back," Castroneves said.
Rounding out the top 10 were Ed Carpenter in eighth, Paul Tracy and Hideki Mutoh. Tracy was racing at Indy for the first time since the disputed 2002 event, when a late caution froze the field just as he was going past Castroneves. The outspoken Canadian is still convinced he won that race -- his appeal was turned down -- but there was no doubt about this one.
It was Castroneves all the way.
The race had barely started when Mario Moraes drifted to the outside and made contact with Andretti, sending both cars into the wall going into the second turn.
The Andretti curse remains in force at Indy. Marco said there was nothing he could do when the 20-year-old Moraes pinched him into the wall.
"The kid doesn't get it, and he never will," said Andretti, only 22 himself. "He's just clueless out there."
Neither driver was hurt, and Andretti even got back on the track for 56 laps to finish 30th in the 33-car field.
Rahal, son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, crashed on the 56th lap in virtually the same spot where he slammed into the wall a year earlier. He started fourth and was running fifth when his car went high coming out of the fourth turn and slammed the barrier. He was not injured.
"I got mid-corner and the car just went straight. It was the same exact thing as last year," the 20-year-old Rahal said. "I felt I was being patient. I thought I wasn't going to have any problem, and all of a sudden it just went."
Kanaan was running third when something snapped in his No. 11 car, sending it straight into the wall at about 190 mph. The helpless machine slid through the third turn and slammed into the SAFER barrier again before finally coming to a stop.
The popular Kanaan wasn't seriously hurt, but he sure was aching after the big hit.
"I went on quite a ride," he said after getting checked at the infield media center. "I knew it was going to be a big one."
It was another painful Indy moment for the hard-luck Brazilian, who had led the race a record seven straight years -- but is still seeking his first 500 win.
"Me and this place," Kanaan said with a sigh.