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 78‑point 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."