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May 29, 2010

Pushin' for 4: Castroneves seeks to become fourth driver to take four checkered flags

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the biggest questions awaiting an answer from the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 Sunday is “Can he do it?” 

Helio Castroneves is sitting in the catbird seat in his quest to become the fourth four-time winner. The pole-sitter could join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in a unique club at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mears was the last driver to earn four wins, the last in 1991. Ironically, Mears works very closely with Castroneves during races.

“I stopped telling him things weeks ago,” Mears jokes.

Castroneves said, “To be successful here, you’ve got to have a lot of combinations of things. First of all you got to have the team. You have to have a fast car and you need to be comfortable in that car. The track is fast, and when you see four corners that look the same, they’re not. And you have to be patient to be good here, and don’t try to think so much you can get yourself in trouble.”

A little luck is always nice, he added.

Castroneves’ quest is just one of many dramas to be played out on race day. One of the series’ strongest and toughest competitors, Tony Kanaan will start in 33rd slot on the grid. In his eight previous starts, he has never began the race lower sixth. Kanaan qualified 32nd, but the Andretti Autosport team repaired the original car, believing it to be the better car. Going from 32nd to 33rd, means little to Kanaan. “There is nothing good about starting in the back,” Kanaan said.

In spite of his troubles, Kanaan is confident in his team. “The team, it’s one of the most winning teams in IndyCar. We’re not lacking anything. We’re behind and we’re going to work for it.

Kanaan knows the challenge ahead of him and puts it into perspective with time management. “I’ve been leading the race and look up and see there are still 120 laps to go, and I think ‘Oh, no we got 120 to go.’ This year, I will be too busy working my way through to think about that.”

Kanaan was quick to point out that the car that starts last is not always the worst car in the field. “That’s not the case here. I have no doubt that I can do it. I can tell you from experience that where you start does not dictate where you finish here.”

For the first time in history, four women will start the Indy 500, two veterans and two rookies. Ana Beatriz made it to the top 24 on Pole Day. She was the fastest rookie of that day with her qualifying speed of 224.243. She was thrilled then and is still in the euphoria of being steps closer to realizing her dream of winning Indy.

Beatriz competed in the Indy Lights series, running two Freedom 100s at Indy, but Sunday is a whole different situation for her. “You have to think of so much more. The IndyCar has so much more speed. It’s a bigger car, heavier car,” Beatriz said.

Simona de Silvestro will start 22nd in her first Indy 500. The 21-year-old from Switzerland previously competed in the Atlantic Championship where she won four times in 2009.

Former Rookies of the Year, Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher will start in the 23rd and 29th slots, respectively. Patrick battled an ill-handling car during qualifications, but feels differently about her race day. “As opposed to just doing four laps as fast as you can, in the race you have strategy and pit stops and all of those other things that make a difference.”

Although not the oldest driver, John Andretti has the most starts of any driver in the field. Andretti starts his 10th Indy 500 spanning from his rookie year in 1988 to today. Richard Petty Racing and Andretti Autosport teamed up to put him in the field in the 28th spot. In 1991, Andretti finished fifth, his best to date. Of all of the drivers, Andretti probably has one of the most reverent attitudes about the speedway.

In his rookie season, Andretti lost engines in two cars before finally making the field. He said he felt he deserved to be in the field. As he looks back, he thinks differently.

“I came to realize that when my dad [Aldo] came up to shake my hand, here’s someone who really deserved to be here and never got that. At that point you realize this place is really special,” Andretti said.

Andretti will be contending with something else this year. For the first time the Overtake Assist “Push to Pass” will be available to drivers during the race. The Overtake Assist adds 200 RPMs to a car. Each track is different, but for Indy drivers will have 15 uses that last for 18 seconds. Each time the button is used, it takes 10 seconds to reset.

Kansas was Andretti’s first opportunity to use the system.

“You kind of have an old dog that rolls over one way,” he said. “That’s why I did Kansas so I could get used to things. I think it could be really critical here.”

The “Push to Pass” is often used as a defensive device, but Andretti said that eventually that offense and defense goes away.

In addition to Beatriz and de Silvestro, four other rookies join the field. Bertrand Baguette, Mario Romancini, former Formula One driver Takuma Sato and 19-year-old Sebastian Saavedra.

Saavedra found out he would start his first Indianapolis 500 from a hospital room. After a crash on Bump Day, Saavedra was sure he was out. Team owner Bryan Herta called him with the surprising but good news.

“It is the most amazing turn of events. You don’t know what this meant to our team because we put everything on the line to make this race.”

This is the first foray into the Indianapolis 500 for Bryan Herta Autosport.

As always, veterans starting toward the rear of the field are concerned about the start.

“The start is kind of wild,” said Fisher. “We just see if everybody wakes up on Sunday.”

This year’s field average at 224.974 is the fastest since 2002 which was 228.648, the fastest ever, but this is the closest field by time. Just 3.0622 seconds separate Castroneves, the fastest, and Saavedra, the slowest.

Besides Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon are all former winners in the field. Between the four of them, they have tallied seven victories.

Public gates open at 6 a.m. Legendary actor Jack Nicholson will waive the green flag at 1 p.m.

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