BROOKLYN, Mich. - Helio Castroneves was in an especially competitive mood yesterday.
He took on his friend, he took on the field, and then he took on the fence at Michigan International Speedway.
And Castroneves, a two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500, won all three of those bouts. He captured the Firestone Indy 400, after more than a 2 1/2-hour rain delay, by running away with the race in the final stages, and Castroneves took over the IndyCar Series points lead in the process.
"I told the guys on my crew, if they let me race, we'll win this thing," Castroneves said. "It was a long race, and a long day, but we had a really fast car, and we got it out front and kept it there."
Castroneves won his fourth race of the season, the 11th of his Indy Racing League career, and his first at MIS. He was thrilled about winning in Michigan for Marlboro Team Penske owner Roger Penske, who lives in the Detroit area and is a former owner of the MIS track.
"Obviously, I want to give this win to Roger," Castroneves said. "I am honored to give this to him. This is his background, here."
Starting from the pole, Castroneves was third in the points chase when the day began, and after surrendering the race lead to teammate Sam Hornish Jr. on the third lap, Castroneves hung right on Hornish through the first 40 laps.
When Hornish developed an over-heating problem that eventually ended his day after just 60 laps, Castroneves went to work battling Vitor Meira, who was out front shortly after the first round of pit stops and eventually finished second.
Through an unholy alliance you would only see in racing, Meira's Panther Racing owner John Barnes proposed a partnership with Castroneves that would allow the two cars to try and pull away and bury the rest of the field just over halfway through the race.
"Our car was very fast from the beginning, even when I was running with Vitor," Castroneves said. "I felt like I could get around him, but I wanted to not do anything crazy, and just wait and run behind him."
The duo built a big lead on the field, and after a round of pit stops about lap 130 of the 200 lap race, Castroneves took the lead and then stood on the gas. A final round of pit stops did not change the picture, and all Castroneves had to do was negotiate through slower traffic in the final 20 laps.
"It's a big day for us because we started off not too good with what happened to Sam," said Penske, whose drivers had not won a race here since 1991 when Rick Mears took the Marlboro 500.
"But Helio drove a great race, and now the championship is getting tighter and tighter."
Castroneves, who jumped from third to first in the IndyCar Series points race while Hornish dropped to second, used his trademark celebration after winning the race. He scaled the fence in front of the MIS main grandstand.
"I had a lot of bad luck before this, but this feels great and the way it's going, we still no idea who is going to win this thing,"
Castroneves said. "But after 400 miles, that fence looked a little higher."
Hornish had an early and ugly departure. After starting second and taking the lead on the third lap, the Defiance native developed engine trouble about 50 laps in.
After making repeated pit stops to try and resolve the issue, Penske decided to have Hornish drop out of the race.
"We don't know what's going on with it, but this is a big shame," Hornish said. "We had a good car and we could lead when we wanted to."
Castroneves, who had planned to run with his teammate Hornish all day, had to change his approach when Hornish went out.
"I lost my wing man, Sam, and I don't know what happened to him, but when I saw Vitor in front and we worked pretty good together,"
Castroneves said. "My group was really aggressive, and we were determined to run this race and every race like it's our last one. When we took the lead, we never looked back."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.42.11068 -84.24795