INDIANAPOLIS – Coming off a year in which the world was shaken to its core by the COVID-19 pandemic, things returned to normal Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway thanks to Brazil’s Helio Castroneves.
Castroneves, who moved to Meyer Shank Racing this year after two decades driving for Team Penske, delivered a performance fit for a king in the 105th Indianapolis 500 – joining the ranks of racing immortality with his record-tying fourth win in The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.
The 46-year-old matched A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and his racing mentor, Rick Mears, for the most wins in Indianapolis 500 history. He previously won the race in 2001, ’02 and ’09, all for owner Roger Penske.
Sunday, however, it wasn’t about Penske – aside from The Captain owning the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of course.
Instead, it was about Castroneves – who reached a record many thought he’d never attain – and team co-owners Mike Shank and Jim Meyer, who celebrated as Indianapolis 500 winners for the first time. And, yes, he continued his victory tradition of climbing the fence, too.
Castroneves’ winning move came with two laps left, when he popped to the outside of Alex Palou coming toward turn one and surged to the front, taking a lead he’d never relinquish again.
From there, the fan favorite fended off every advance Palou made in the dying moments, despite a line of traffic that looked to give Palou a chance to counter on the final trip around the 2.5-mile oval.
After crossing the famed Yard of Bricks in front by .492 seconds, a mammoth 15-minute victory celebration ensued on the frontstretch – with Castroneves sprinting up and down in front of the fans amid a near-mob scene as well-wishers from every corner of the IndyCar paddock poured in to offer congratulations.
Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 marked the 31st Indy car win of Castroneves’ career – tying him with Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti for 10th all-time – and his 25th victory under NTT IndyCar Series sanctioning.
But as he soaked in the moment, Castroneves admitted it might have been the greatest of them all.
“I can’t believe it!” he said. “I can’t thank this team enough. … This stage is absolutely incredible. I love Indianapolis, you guys just don’t understand. These fans, they give me energy. This is absolutely incredible. From the beginning [of the month] we were comfortable and happy. We played it calm, but right now, I’m just so excited. The car was incredible. I knew it was so good.
“I knew I was going to get a fight, but I just put my elbows out,” he added. “What an incredible feeling.”
In the fastest Indianapolis 500 on record – slowed by just two caution flags for an average race pace of 190.680 mph – game-changing moments didn’t happen often, but when they did, they were massive.
The first was on lap 33, amid the first cycle of green-flag pit stops, when Stefan Wilson’s car broke loose coming onto pit road and hit the wall to force the first caution of the afternoon.
At that point, a handful of the frontrunners had pitted, but most had yet to stop and found themselves on fumes with an extended wait before pit road was able to be opened due to Wilson’s crashed car.
The unlikely scenario forced polesitter and pre-race favorite Scott Dixon, as well as Alexander Rossi, to pit road for emergency service as they ran out of fuel – with both cars stalling as a result.
Lengthy periods to get the two Hondas refired dropped both Dixon and Rossi a lap down and forced them to try and play catch-up for the remainder of the race. Neither was able to get back in contention.
Graham Rahal’s turn-two crash on lap 119 brought out the second and final yellow flag of the day, after his pit crew failed to get the left-rear wheel tight on his No. 15 Honda and it came off, sending him spinning from the access road across the track and into the outside wall.
Rahal was uninjured, but after holding a top-10 position prior to his pit stop, his shot at Indy 500 glory was dashed.
The penultimate green-flag pit cycle came on lap 136, but via some creative strategy, Dixon found himself leading on lap 158 and in position to stretch his fuel to the finish if the right circumstances developed. They didn’t, however, leaving Castroneves, Palou and Pato O’Ward to settle the race.
Castroneves pitted for the final time with 28 to go, with Palou pitting one lap later, and then the leaders waited things out as Felix Rosenqvist, J.R. Hildebrand, defending winner Takuma Sato and others tried to stretch their fuel to the finish.
One by one, however, they all gave up the ghost. Sato hung on the longest, staying out until six laps to go, but when he finally pitted the battle for the win fell into the hands of Palou and Castroneves.
Castroneves cycled out as the leader on lap 195, but Palou passed him the next lap and appeared to be in position to win in just his second Indianapolis 500 start.
However, Castroneves’ furious move to the outside with two to go was the difference-maker, leaving Palou to settle for a career-best Indy 500 result of second.
“It hurts. It hurts,” said Palou, who led 35 laps Sunday. “It’s the Indy 500 – I can’t be angry about finishing second – but we had the car to win. We had the best car. The No. 10 NTT Data Honda was amazing.
“I’m super proud of finishing second. It hurts a lot, as I said, but it was a good battle with Helio and I think it’s better when you lose against the best in the business, so … good job Helio.”
Simon Pagenaud, the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner, completed the podium Sunday ahead of O’Ward and hometown hero Ed Carpenter.
Santino Ferrucci, Sage Karam, first-half leader Rinus VeeKay, two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and 2013 winner Tony Kanaan closed the top 10.
Conor Daly, who led the most laps (40) in this year’s Indy 500, hit the errant wheel from Rahal’s car with the nose of his No. 47 Ed Carpenter Racing-prepared Chevrolet and faded from a shot to win the race as a result. He finished 13th, but still put together one of his most complete Indy 500 efforts to date.
Thirty of the 33 starters made it to the checkered flag in Sunday’s largely attrition-free event.