By Jeff Olson
If Helio Castroneves needed further proof that he is indeed blessed, he got it Friday.
Minutes after he was informed that the last remaining federal charge against him and his sister Katiucia had been dropped, Castroneves recorded the fastest lap during the final practice session before Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. He and his Penske Racing crew then won the pit-stop competition during Carb Day activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, further cementing the notion that he’s the favorite to win his third Indy 500.
“I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet,” said Castroneves, who will start from the pole when Sunday’s race begins shortly after 1 p.m. ET. “But this is the best month of my life.”
The No. 3 Penske Racing Dallara-Honda recorded a lap of 223.920 mph in the practice session, usually a simple leak check for the top contenders. The two other Penske cars – driven by Ryan Briscoe and Will Power, posted laps among the top five.
Power was second fastest during the hour-long session, turning a lap of 223.560 mph in the No. 12 Penske Racing Dallara-Honda. Briscoe had the fifth-fastest lap – 222.374 mph – in the No. 6 Penske entry.
Castroneves and his crew, led by veteran crew chief Rick Rinaman, capped a magical day by edging Marco Andretti in the finals of the pit-stop competition with a final stop of just 7.962 seconds, a record in the competition. Friday’s win was the third in a row for Castroneves and Rinaman’s crew.
“Some of these guys have been with me for 10 years or more,” Castroneves said. “We’re a team. We win together, we lose together, we celebrate together. This one is very special for me. The month is falling into place. I’m so thankful to have these guys.”
Castroneves was found not guilty of federal tax-evasion charges last month after a six-week trial. The jury was deadlocked on one of the charges, and federal prosecutors could have retried him on that charge. However, on Friday they announced that they would not pursue further action against Castroneves.
When asked about the decision, Castroneves wept briefly. “It feels awesome, no question,” he said. “I just have to thank the team, which always believed and has always been behind me. It’s just good news. It makes me even more strong. I’m thankful that I had a fair trial and that it turned out the way it did. This is the last page of my book.”
When asked if Castroneves had changed because of the trial, Cindric and Rinaman joked that Castroneves recently treated his crew to dinner, noting that he rarely picks up a check. “We knew he was cheap,” Cindric quipped, “but he wasn’t a criminal in our minds.”
Others showing speed during the final practice session included Mario Moraes, who had the third –fastest lap (222.9951 mph) in the No. 5 KV Racing Technology Dallara-Honda. Both Ganassi drivers – defending race winner Scott Dixon and 2007 winner Dario Franchitti – also posted laps over 222 mph.
“Carb Day is really only to make sure the car runs in a pack,” said Dixon, noting that the final practice is usually just a routine check of the new race engine and gearbox. “You’re just trying to make sure there's no kind of problem that may stop you from running at the start of the race. You want to feel the car out a little bit in traffic.”
After an off day Saturday that includes a public drivers’ meeting and the Indy 500 parade in downtown Indianapolis, drivers and teams will get set for Sunday’s race. Weather forecasts call for highs in the upper 70s and occasional showers, with the chance of precipitation at 30 percent.Related story:• Carb day practice recap