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Indy's greatest champion? Time will tellPosted Monday, May 25, 2009, at 11:17 PM
Ever since the IRL/CART split in 1996 and even through the slow rejoining of the open wheel racing community in America, the question has been asked -- what's wrong with open wheel racing?
Lower speeds, too many foreign drivers and a lack of innovation have all been suggested as problems. Another could be that nearly every time a driver makes a name for himself (or herself), a bolt to F1 or NASCAR seems imminent.
I can't sit here today and talk about what's wrong with the IRL, but I will tell you one thing that's absolutely right.
His name is Helio Castroneves.
Here's what this man has done in the course of his career in the IRL: 14 wins, 28 poles and 43 top 10 finishes in 116 career starts. The win total jumps to 20 if you count four years in CART.
He's also one of the two most recognizable faces in the sport, a fact that owes itself in no small part to being a Dancing With the Stars champion. He also has the biggest smile in the Western Hemisphere and my absolute favorite post-race celebration.
But his most important accomplishment? On Sunday, he became just the ninth man in history to win three Indianapolis 500s. He won his first two starts at the track in 2001 and 2002 and then ran away from Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick to claim this year's crown.
So what should the IRL and motor speedway do now? Helio's grinning face needs to be everywhere in the coming years. Put the hype machine in overdrive.
Come watch Helio's run at history! Will he become the next four-time winner or (gasp) the first-ever five-time winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?
Now I know you're all saying, "Hold on a minute. Is he really that good? I mean, we're talking about A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears here."
I am saying he's that good. Why couldn't he win four or even five?
Castroneves is 33 years old right now. Let's compare that to our four-time champs. Foyt was 32 when he won No. 3. Unser won his third a day before his 39th birthday. Mears was 36. For No. 4, they were 42, 47 and 39, respectively.
Those numbers all add up to the window by no means closing on Castroneves.
In fact, 42 of the previous 92 races have been won by men older than Castroneves is right now. It's not a majority, but it's not bad.
The biggest thing Helio has working in his favor is his team. Roger Penske won his first race as an owner with Mark Donohue in 1972, but his dominance at the track really began with Mears' first victory in '79. Since then, Penske is 14-for-31.
Also over that span, only one man -- Arie Luyendyk -- has won multiple races without any of them coming in a Penske car. Mears won all four of his for Penske, Emerson Fittipaldi won for him twice and Al Unser Jr. won his second 500 for Penske in 1994 And, of course, all three of Castroneves' championships have been for Marlboro Team Penske.
In the end, all I'm saying is keep watching the IRL and especially the 500 if for no other reason than Castroneves. NASCAR fans will continue to insist that the racing isn't as good, but the racing is just different.
What no other racing league can boast is a driver so universally likeable as Castroneves. This joyous Brazilian will win the Indy 500 again. My only question is, how many?
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Jared Jernagan is a 2003 graduate of Wabash College and has been in journalism since 2005.