INDIANAPOLIS – When uncertain about his future had Helio Castroneves down in the dumps, he thought about his true love – being in a race car.
Saturday, less than a month after being acquitted of charges of tax evasion, Castroneves was right where he wanted to be, back in the cockpit and on the pole for the Indianapolis 500.
On a cool, windy day full of strategic guesses on when to qualify and when to stay off the track, the Brazilian driver took a big gamble, voiding a fast qualifying effort from earlier in the day and knocking Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe off the pole.
Castroneves’ four-lap average of 224.864 mph on the historic 2.5-mile oval came with less than two hours remaining in the six-hour opening round of time trials for the May 24 race.
Castroneves said his third Indy pole in seven years is more special because of the uncertainty he faced from the time he was indicted last October until the end of the trial April 17 in Miami.
“Many times during the trial I was thinking about it,” he said. “I knew what I loved (is) racing, but I realized even more that’s my life. And just to be here is a dream come true and I appreciate that every day when I wake up in the morning.
“I enjoy life. Now I enjoy it even more. But I have to say that what I learned from the trial, probably my mind is much stronger and my skin is a little bit thicker now.”
Castroneves stood by his car in the pits as Briscoe and several other challengers, including former Indy winner Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and 20-year-old Graham Rahal, took shots at knocking him off the top spot.
Castroneves, who previously won poles in 2003 and 2007, gave boss Roger Penske a record 15th Indy pole.
But The Captain was just happy for the driver, who he strongly supported throughout his legal ordeal.
“There’s no question the emotion around him,” Penske said. “He’s one of the most electric guys in racing and everybody likes him.”
Penske also was proud of Briscoe, who made the decision to withdraw a 224.131 run from earlier in the day and try to take the pole from Castroneves in the final 10 minutes of the session.
Briscoe, who qualified a little slower on the second attempt at 224.083, said he might have had a better chance to knock his teammate off the pole if the decision had been made sooner.
“When you get down to it, it’s all about timing,” the Australian driver said. “We really wanted to do another practice run and then everybody got in (the qualifying) line and we had to get in line. We ran out of time.”
It was a big day for Penske, who also placed Will Power, his third driver, ninth among the 11 drivers who locked up starting spots in the 33-car race field.
With wind gusts up to 25 mph making the famed Brickyard oval more treacherous than normal and each entry allowed up to three qualifying attempts, many of the teams tried to outguess the gusts and their rivals.
The next 11 spots in the field will be filled today. The other 11 positions will be filled Saturday, with next Sunday reserved for drivers attempting to bump the slowest qualifiers out of the field.
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