Helio Castroneves thought he was finally on the way to his first victory of the 2008 IndyCar season as he paced the field the final few laps at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night, only to be denied what is proving to be an elusive 13th career triumph.

The Brazilian had barely been a factor in the Meijer Indy 300, but a typically brave strategic call from team boss Roger Penske saw the #3 machine out front with five-and-a-half laps to run. Sadly, the attempt to stretch a 22-gallon load of ethanol over 57 trips around the 1.5-mile oval came up just short, and saw Castroneves 'rewarded' with the 19th runner-up spot of his career and seventh of a season that sees him dropping slowly further from Scott Dixon's lead.

"When I was going into turn three, I thought 'I've got it, I'm finally going to win this race - or a race," the Brazilian said, "Then, all of a sudden, I'm coming out of turn four and the car just coughed. My reaction at that time was 'no', but I needed to still finish the race. I didn't want the car to stop right away. I didn't know how many cars were behind Dixon and Marco [Andretti]. I just wanted to finish the race as high as I could."

That determination was enough to see the Penske car cross the line behind Dixon, but marginally in front of Andretti, who had proven to be the Kiwi's biggest rival for most of the evening.

"It's funny," a phlegmatic Castroneves reflected, "Scott says to me 'man, every time I win, you finish second', and I say 'well, every time I finish second, you finish first. We've got to change that. You've got to finish behind a little bit and let me win'.'

The Brazilian, who now trails Dixon by 78 points with three races remaining, has finished second to the New Zealander at both Texas and Edmonton, as well as Kentucky, and within three places of the Ganassi car in each of its three other wins in this record-equalling campaign, while gaining points back at St Petersburg, Twin Ring Motegi and Mid-Ohio.

Dixon, who is 23 laps led shy of breaking Tony Kanaan's 2004 series record, has gained an additional 15 points for leading the most laps in five races this year, and is beginning to sense that a second title could be his.

"Obviously, with a 78point lead now, I think it's pretty healthy - but anything can happen," he insisted after visiting Victory Circle at Kentucky Speedway for the first time, "Helio could quite easily have gained on us and made it more of a fight.

"With Sonoma and Chicago and Belle Isle, tracks that those guys are very good at, we are going to make sure we don't lose too many points - but it would be nice to gain a couple on Helio in Sonoma. Maybe we only need 82 points or something to have it sewn up [heading to Chicagoland Speedway on 7 September]. That would be nice but, in reality, I think we'll be racing almost till the last race."

In truth, Dixon probably deserved to win at Kentucky, having started from pole and led 151 of the 200 laps before coming back from a 'splash and dash' to make the last lap pass on Castroneves.

"What a day," he reflected, "I think we tried to play it kind of safe and just be conservative - even in traffic, we really didn't rush things. The car was fantastic, although we didn't have as much speed as we thought we did, especially in practice and qualifying, and we had a couple of guys that definitely sped up, with [Vitor] Meira and Marco toward the end. Their cars were very fast, but it was strategy in the end.

"It was crazy. There was no way we were going to catch [Castroneves] - he was half the track ahead of us. I knew our car was probably quicker than his, but not 20mph faster.... It was nice to get it the way we did - especially when I think about the run that Dario [Franchitti] had for the championship last season."

Andretti, meanwhile, was naturally disappointed to 'only' finish third, having given Dixon a run for his money through the second half of the race. The third generation driver first took the lead on lap 122, lost it during a pit-stop on lap 135 and then regained top spot on lap 165 to lead through until the 'splash and dash' stops with ten laps to go. While Dixon passed Castroneves in the final turn, the Brazilian was able to coast over the line just before Andretti could catch him.

"We need to start capitalising on races like this where we have the car to win," he insisted, having carried event sponsor Meijer's colours onto the podium, "Dixon had a bit of speed on us, but I think the Meijer car was better in traffic. He and I were the two guys who had cars to win tonight, so it's just unfortunate that we weren't in
Victory Lane."

Meira was the only other runner that appeared a threat to the eventual winner, leading for five laps prior to the first round of pit-stops, but also lost out as Castroneves nursed his car to the chequered flag.

"My car was just a little too loose on the last stint to make the move," the Panther Racing pilot claimed, "The entire time we planned on it cooling down late in the race and we knew we would be money on the last 50 laps. Oval racing is all about being in the right place at the right time and putting yourself in position to win. If we continue to put ourselves in this position, it's going to happen."


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