Danica, Helio in spotlight at Brickyard


DANICA, HELIO FRONT & CENTER

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS

Part-time drivers and one-off rides are usually afterthoughts at the Indianapolis 500, where the sport’s brightest stars tend to shine in the hot sun on the final Sunday of May.

This year, the part-time driver is Helio Castroneves.

And the one-off is Danica Patrick.

Throw in a deep, four-car stable from newly minted NASCAR Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske, the race favorite starting from the back row and a big name sitting out the race, and the 102nd edition of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has every expectation of living up to its nickname.

Yes, Castroneves can win this race for a record-tying fourth time. He’s been chasing that mark since 2010 and has finished second three times, including last year when he was beaten by Takuma Sato, the first Japanese winner in race history.

Castroneves will have Penske calling his race as “The Captain” seeks his 17th Indy 500 victory. But this is so very different for the popular Brazilian. Penske needed him in sports cars this year so he moved Castroneves out of IndyCar but promised him a seat in the race for a shot at that fourth jug of milk.

Castroneves is part of the talented Penske lineup that put all four of its Chevrolets in the front nine of the starting grid. He was the favorite to win the pole but didn’t get the run he needed and wound up eighth, right behind Patrick.

Her return to racing’s biggest stage comes seven years after Patrick left for NASCAR. The only woman to lead laps in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 has no plans to race again after Sunday. Like Castroneves, she returned to Indy with a car capable of winning.

Chevrolet , winner of only two Indy 500s since its 2012 return to IndyCar, came to Indianapolis Motor Speedway intent on ending Honda’s two-year winning streak. With the fastest cars in the field, there are Chevys in seven of the first nine starting spots. Four went to Penske drivers and three to Ed Carpenter Racing, which is fielding a car for Patrick and put team owner Ed Carpenter on the pole.

Everyone knows she can win her finale, but not many believe she will actually pull it off. Patrick believes in herself, though, and her peers have no doubt she will impress again at Indy.

“Not enough people give enough credit to her,” Castroneves said. “She’s not only stayed away so many years from IndyCar, and come back, not only to be in a race ... it shows that she’s an amazing talent. She opens so many doors for so many young ladies, young girls, to become race car drivers. Courageous for her, as well, making the decision to stop.

“I don’t know if I have that courage to do it. Good for her. I will try and make it as hard as I can, her last 500 — for sure it’s an honor to be sharing the track with her all the years that I did.”

Patrick briefly got on track Friday, the final day of practice, but had to take her car to the garage for an electrical issue. It might have caused another driver to panic, but not Patrick, who recognizes she has a shot to win. She’s nervous about the opportunity but excited about her future. She’s also mindful of what she’s meant to racing, those she has inspired and what her final trip around Indy will mean to those who have followed her career.

“Making an impact on people’s lives, having the ability to make an impact on people’s lives, is really powerful,” she said. “What do I say to somebody if they’re like: ‘How did you get to where you are? What do I do? Give me something inspirational?’ It’s my story. It might not be conventional, but I’m not. It doesn’t even have to be complicated. The ability to affect people and inspire people is really powerful. I’ve never overlooked it. I’ve never said I didn’t ask for it and I don’t want it. I honor it and try to do a good job with it.”

The same could be said for James Hinchcliffe, the driver who replaced Patrick when she left for IndyCar and grew into one of the sport’s most popular drivers. He had a near-fatal accident at Indy in 2015, returned the next year and won the pole, then failed to qualify for today’s race because of a series of mistakes by his race team.

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