The fence at City Center Airport was “a little soft” by Helio Castroneves’ standards. After 27 Indy-car wins in his career, he certainly knows a thing or two about fences.
However, that didn’t keep the moment from being any less special. Prior to Sunday, Castroneves had always been close at this track, but had never got the cigar – three second-place finishes and a potential win in 2010 scratched by a blocking penalty on the race’s final restart.
There was nothing to dash Castroneves’ hopes this time. Armed with a strong car and enough push-to-pass to thwart any late charges from Takuma Sato behind him, the exuberant Brazilian finally took the checkered flag in Edmonton.
He then stopped in Turn 1, where the appreciative Albertans in attendance cheered Castroneves as he made another fence-climb.
“I'm never going to forget what happened [in 2010], but I’ve certainly got to move on,” he said. “Today was a great day, so we realize and finally can say we won here.
“We've always been quick, we've always been there, but today, we certainly win.”
And certainly, Castroneves has to now be a legitimate threat for this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series championship. He and Team Penske teammate Will Power -- who jumped 14 positions to come home in third place behind Sato -- both made up ground on points leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. The American’s lead is down to 23 points over Castroneves and 26 over Power as the series heads for the rolling hills of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 5, 12:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Power and Hunter-Reay were put in a hole from the start as they suffered 10-spot grid penalties for unapproved engine changes. Those penalties left the door open for Castroneves to make a big move in the standings, and he responded accordingly.
“Basically, this weekend was everything playing into our favor,” he said. “Since those guys battling for the championship are penalized for changing engines -- going for a different [engine] spec -- we decided to keep doing what we were doing. That's why we ended up being consistent and winning the race today.”
Even though Castroneves has never won a series title, he has had several championship duels in his career. In 2002, he took Sam Hornish Jr. to the final race of the season. 2003 had him do the same, but as part of a five-way donnybrook with himself, Hornish, Gil de Ferran, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon. Then in 2008, he and Dixon fought again for series supremacy.
None of those sagas ended in ultimate glory for Castroneves, but he is certainly battle-tested – and he welcomes another tight championship battle.
“I hope it will be really tough,” he said on Sunday. “Certainly, Will is an incredible talent. We have all seen that. And Ryan [Hunter-Reay is] in a fantastic momentum right now. In the end of the day, it's all about being there.
“Right now, I'm still playing cool, man. I just want to make sure we do what we're doing.”
A marked improvement in consistency has been important for Castroneves this year. But considering his many close calls in regards to a series championship over his career, you had the feeling that a second win (he won the season-opener in March at St. Petersburg, Florida) was essential to really putting himself into the title picture and making IndyCar observers take him every bit as seriously as Hunter-Reay and Power.
That’s no longer a concern after Sunday. And while Castroneves has maintained that he does not need a series title to validate his memorable career, winning one is the only task that’s really left for him to accomplish after three Indianapolis 500 triumphs, the aforementioned 27 overall race wins, and becoming one of the most popular drivers in the sport.
Also, there are worse fates for INDYCAR than having Castroneves come from behind to nab that elusive prize in September. While some American fans would prefer to see their countryman Hunter-Reay win the title – and that would be a definite boon for the series on its home ground – a Castroneves championship would be well-received across the board, too.
A title for Power would also be compelling for the series, as he’s been in contention for the last two seasons. In addition, we can’t discount Scott Dixon, who can easily chop down his 61-point deficit if he goes on a hot streak and the three drivers ahead of him run into trouble.
All in all, another IZOD IndyCar Series season looks set to go down to the wire -- a situation that Castroneves knows very well.
But can he finally become the king of the mountain? His teammate, Power, isn’t going to doubt his chances.
“He's stronger than ever this year,” Power said about his compatriot. “He's been really consistent on days that he can't win. When he can win, he absolutely executes…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.”