Fire still burns in Castroneves to win races and championship

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The accolades are endless for Helio Castroneves, but there is one that continues to elude him – the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Entering his 20th season of Indy car racing, the 41-year-old Brazilian continues to be a model of consistency with five consecutive seasons of finishing in the top five in the overall standings (fourth in 2012, second in ’13, second in ’14, fifth in ’15 and third in ’16). However, the toughest test has been enduring a winless drought for the past two and a half seasons.

It’s been 44 races since his last win in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix doubleheader in June 2014. Ending the streak is something the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner says will go a long way toward earning his first Astor Cup.

“It's been 20 years and we're doing everything we can, and we always end up close,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet. “For sure, win. You've got to make it happen. Last few years we have not been in victory circle and that hurts, for sure, to be at least in contention. So we've got to figure out a way to win, and from there on, just hopefully carry on the momentum for points.

“We have consistency, which is probably the most difficult thing is to keep that consistency. We've just got to find the weakness spot areas and, for sure, the main thing is winning a race and with that, we carry on the rest of the season.”

In 2014, the 29-time Indy car winner watched as Team Penske teammate Will Power captured his first title. In 2016, it was a Penske 1-2-3 in the championship, with Castroneves too distant in the battle at the season finale to contend with eventual champion Simon Pagenaud, who won his first title in just his second year with the team, and runner-up Power.

With the 2017 season looming, Castroneves, a 47-time Indy car pole sitter (ranking fourth all-time), is watching firsthand the emergence of incoming teammate Josef Newgarden, who is set to pilot the No. 2 Chevrolet. Newgarden also comes in after finishing fourth behind the Penske trio last year when he drove for Ed Carpenter Racing.

“We have the top four in the championship,” Castroneves said. “Basically, I don't think you can do better than that, and that's our goal. It's to complete the top four in the same team, and we are looking for the same result that we have this year, except different numbers.

“Hopefully that No. 3 (car) will be in the No. 1 spot.”

History still sits on the doorstep for Castroneves, who is one Indianapolis 500 win away from tying A.J. Foyt and former Penske drivers Rick Mears and Al Unser for the most all-time in the illustrious event’s records. That milestone could be realized May 28 with the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but the veteran of 327 career Indy car starts (also fourth all-time) and 90 podiums (sixth all-time) knows that window for both another Borg-Warner Trophy and his first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series championship is closing.

“Personally, I know that the clock is ticking,” said Castronves, who has career 5,595 laps led in Indy car competition, fifth in the record books.

“I don't have to prove anything to anybody else, but I want to achieve my goals, and my goal is to win a championship,” he said. “We've just got to put all the pieces together. Last year we had a very good season, we had pole position, we were fast, we were leading races. Roger (Penske) always says you lose more than win races, and I agree.

“There's so many races that we should have won and probably would have put us in the battle for the championship. But the interesting thing is we always have phenomenal teammates that end up getting in the right spot in the right situation.”

Despite the obstacles ahead, Castroneves is attacking the future like a throwback to the days of Foyt and Mario Andretti, both of whom raced well into their 50s.

“I won't think about the clock ticking, I am thinking about opportunity, and that's probably the motivation to come back every year. When I put the helmet on, give it my best, and that's what I'm going to do again.”

The 2017 IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 10-12.