Firestone Indy 400
Night and Day
by Esteban Morales
July 30 , 2006
One week ago a furious Helio Castroneves stormed out of his injured Dallara convinced his championship hopes were dashed after light contact with Ed Carpenter at the Milwaukee Mile. A week and a new track later however, Castroneves was all smiles. A win at Michigan International Speedway that propelled him back atop the championship standings explains the sudden change in mood.
Although Castroneves has struggled after a troubled Indy performance, everything turned around for the Brazilian this weekend. The weekend began with Castroneves capturing pole for the Firestone Indy 400 on Saturday but was halted by rain on race day. After a lengthy delay and a yellow start, Castroneves lost the lead on the first green flag lap to teammate Sam Hornish Jr. but kept his cool throughout an opening stint that saw him battle a loose racecar. Castroneves held onto Hornish and cleanly made it through the first set of scheduled pit stops just before the last yellow of the race flew on lap 44 for Marty Roth's stalled car; Roth was making his first start in the series since his run at Indy earlier this year. Due to some luck that saw him pit just before Roth slowed on the track, Kosuke Matsuura inherited the lead of the race while Hornish crept into the pits with an overheating car; the problem took Hornish out of the running and dropped him to second in the point standings.
Matsuura led the field to the green but quickly fell back while Vitor Meira emerged at the head of the pack. Meira ran impressively and soon opened a considerable lead over Dan Wheldon, Tomas Scheckter and the rest of the field. A characteristic race at Michigan includes packs of cars running down the leader, this was definitely an exception as Meira led by over two seconds by lap 85. Meira led the way into the pits on lap 88 and emerged in the lead once the stops cycled through. However, his convincing lead had evaporated and Castroneves filled his fellow countryman's mirrors with Marlboro red and white. As Meira led through the halfway mark Castroneves tucked in behind and the two cars ran away while best of the rest Wheldon led the charge behind the leaders.
The deciding factor of the race came on laps 129 and 130 when Castroneves and Meira pitted, respectively. Meira looked poised to pick up a long overdue win but Castroneves easily took the lead and emerged two seconds clear of the day glow orange Panther Racing machine following their stops. With a quarter of the race left to run Castroneves dramatically extended his lead over Meira while Wheldon, Kanaan and Ed Carpenter battled for top-five honors behind the leaders. By lap 165 Castroneves was over four seconds clear of Meira and made his final pit stop just a few laps later on lap 168. Meira tried to capitalize on the situation by staying on the track for a few more laps then made his way into pit lane. Once in the pits his crew valiantly rocketed him out for the final stint, nearly two seconds quicker than Castroneves' stop. Unfortunately for Meira his crew's quick work was just not enough as Castroneves maintained a large lead.
In the closing stages of the race Castroneves had to slice through dense traffic but handled it expertly. Meira closed in considerably but was unable to seriously challenge for the win. Castroneves picked up his fourth win of the season and regained the championship lead while Meira captured a bittersweet second place finish for the third time this year.