He’s won three Indianapolis 500s and a popular reality TV competition. Only 11 drivers have won more IndyCar events than he has, and he’s one of the most recognizable racers in the IZOD IndyCar Series. He is easily one of the best of a generation of drivers. His legacy would seem all but assured.
Yet for all the success, for all the popularity and reputation as an enduring fan favorite and Indy 500 ace, Helio Castroneves has never won a season championship in IndyCar. But now, 15 years after an unknown Brazilian made his CART debut for Bettenhausen Racing, at age 38, Castroneves is exceedingly close to doing just that.
It’s not that Helio has never made a run at a title; rather, it’s more accurate to say that there was either someone better, or luckier, or just more consistent enough to make it happen. In 2002, despite winning twice, he finished a mere 20 points behind Sam Hornish, Jr. for the season’s top honors. In 2008, only 17 points separated him and series champ Scott Dixon. Helio knows more than anyone, no matter how strong you finish, a title can hinge on a single poor finish. Consider Watkins Glen, 2008—P16, followed by an unbroken string of podiums and victories until the end of the year. A P14 at Iowa the same year. These don’t sound like catastrophic finishes, but when you’re contending against the likes of Scott Dixon and company, the slightest stumble can mean second place.
And now, in 2013, Castroneves again finds himself, locked in combat with Dixon for that one item Helio has yet to win—the season’s crown. But joined with Dixon to test Castroneves are drivers such as Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending champion, and Marco Andretti, perhaps the only driver to come close to Helio’s consistency this year. It’s a year where ten different drivers have won, the traditional backmarker teams have roared in defiance, and every week seems a giant cipher.
Still, Castroneves endures. A 39 point lead, with four races left. Baltimore. Houston, twice. And finally, a grueling marathon once more at Fontana. 39 points can evaporate in a hurry.
In the last few seasons, IndyCar fans have seen a slow changing of the guard. Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani, and yes, Helio have reached the last stage of their careers. Perhaps they hang around a half-decade more, but the James Hinchcliffes, Simon Pagenauds, and Charlie Kimballs have made it abundantly clear they are not waiting around. The old guard is still razor-sharp, but is challenged as never before.
It’s onto this backdrop that we see perhaps the last, best hope of Helio Castroneves to win a championship play out. Every race weekend this season, all but one, he has brought home his machine to at least a Top 10 finish. If he wants to secure his place among the season champions of IndyCar, Helio Castroneves must do the same in these last races. Will he stay on course, and become the series champion as he has desperately wanted? The last IndyCar race weekends will give us, and Helio, our answer.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter (@indycaradvocate), or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org