Helio Castroneves and Rick Mears

INDIANAPOLIS – It has been 11 years since Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves celebrated his third Indianapolis 500 win in Victory Lane, but the popular driver from Brazil is just as cheerful and ebullient as he when he arrived at Indy for the first time in 2001.

At 45, Castroneves remains one of the most popular people on the property at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Always smiling and friendly, he makes everyone feel important.

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Every year since his last victory in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, Castroneves has been trying to join the rare club of four-time Indy 500 winners. Only three men have earned that position in their careers: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

“It does feel like a long time ago, but things happen for a reason,” Castroneves said. “I’ve said it a number of times, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.”

During that span, he has come close.

In 2014, he was engaged in a fierce battle with Ryan Hunter-Reay in the 98th Indianapolis 500, including a battle where the cars drove through the grass in Turn 3 to determine the winner.

Hunter-Reay defeated Castroneves by just .0600 of a second, the second-closest Indy 500 finish in history.

In 2017, Castroneves was chasing Japan’s Takuma Sato for the win in the 101st Indianapolis 500. Sato edged Castroneves by just .2011 of a second.

Go back even further to 2003 and Castroneves finished second to then Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran by .2990 of a second. That’s the margin that kept Castroneves from becoming the only driver to win the Indy 500 three years in a row.

Indy 500 win No. 4 – oh so close, yet so far away for Castroneves.

“I could smell it and feel it,” Castroneves said of those near misses. “In 2017, that was the toughest one because Honda was the strongest. In 2003 with Gil, I did everything I could to avoid a crash with a backmarker in Turn 2. In 2014 with Ryan Hunter-Reay, he literally threw himself into the corner. If Rick (Mears) didn’t say inside, we would have both crashed.

“They went for it all, and sometimes you have to be responsible.”

Castroneves is back for his 12th straight attempt at scoring a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, but he will have to do it from the worst starting position of his career in this event. Castroneves starts way back in 28th place in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet.

“It gives me motivation,” Castroneves said. “Even starting in 28th place, I know I am capable. I am thinking about it, but it doesn’t make me think negative about it. I learn from those opportunities why it didn’t happen so that we can make it right.”

Castroneves has been one of the storylines to this unusual 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge that was moved to Sunday, Aug. 23 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few weeks ago, Team Penske President Tim Cindric informed his Acura Team Penske IMSA team that they were free agents for next year after Acura and Team Penske decided to end their sports car effort at the end of the 2020 season.

Castroneves joined Team Penske after the 1999 CART season ended and was part of the INDYCAR effort as a full-time driver from 2000 to 2017.

Team owner Roger Penske moved Castroneves to the IMSA program beginning in 2018 and indicated earlier this week that there is the possibility that the Brazilian driver could return to the Indy 500 with Team Penske in 2021.

But without a full-time Team Penske sports car program, Castroneves wants to return to a full-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES ride.

That could mean moving to a different team in 2021.

“I haven’t talked directly to him about next year,” Castroneves said, referring to Penske. “We are sitting here now going for that Indy 500 win No. 4.

“We have to see the opportunity out there, as well. I have been speaking loud and clear that I want to go back. But this point, nothing is overruled. The idea is to return to INDYCAR for the full-time season.”

Castroneves said last week that he has spoken to four or five different teams in the paddock about joining forces for next year.

“I’m open for business,” Castroneves said. “I’m talking to a lot of teams.

“I want to make sure that people understand, I want to keep it going. Just because the team doesn’t have a program, I still want to race, and I can take that to another team.”

First and foremost, however, is securing Indianapolis 500 win No. 4 on Sunday, which would be Team Penske’s 19th Indy 500 victory and the first win for a driver during the “Penske Era” of ownership at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR.

“It would be awesome because Roger has invested so much in this place,” Castroneves said. “He gives so much to the employees, so much to the drivers. I’m a perfect testimony that has given so much to myself, as well. Giving back to him would be a payback.

“No. 19 for him would be incredible and No. 4 with Team Penske would be incredible. I have the feeling, but we are also capable to do it.

“The group that we have out here, most of the guys are from the sports car program. Some of them are first-timers here. Some of them are not. The excitement of them and the positivity is out of this world.

“I think we are going to have a great time on Sunday.”

Jon Bouslog, known as “Myron,” is the team manager and will call the race strategy. Jonathan Diuguid is the engineer, and Joel Svensson is Castroneves’ chief mechanic.

His No. 3 Pennzoil crew are members of Castroneves’ team in IMSA.

“This is the third time we are going with the same car and although I don’t have a full season, it gives me the understanding what language the car is talking about,” Castroneves said. “The Aeroscreen has given me a comfort zone. Because I’m driving the sports car program, it is perfect for driving in that condition.”

Castroneves calls Mears his “third eye” as the spotter, but he is also a key advisor to the driver. He tells Castroneves to be patient and that a driver doesn’t win on the first lap but can lose the race on the first lap.

Castroneves is the only driver in Indianapolis 500 history that won the Indy 500 in his first two attempts, in 2001 and 2002.

“Those stats will start being more explored when I’m not here anymore,” Castroneves said. “The stats are here. We’ve already done it. We can focus on the past. That’s the stuff for the museum.

“I’m looking at the present to have a fantastic race. That is what I am looking for.”

The driver has had a close relationship with the team owner and considers him more than the boss.

It’s much deeper than that.

“He never gave up on me under any circumstances,” Castroneves said of Penske. “He will always be part of me. He became part of my life. His family is part of my life. He is the most powerful man I know, and he is an incredible human being.

“We are still partners with an automobile dealership. It’s not over; it’s circumstances as they happen, and you have to take it as they come.”