WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
One thing never seems to change in his daily life: Helio Castroneves is always quick with a smile.
With two races left in the IndyCar season, the affable Brazilian still has a chance to make that grin perpetual _ if it isn't already _ by winning his first title.
"We are not here because we are lucky. We are here because we're able to put ourselves in this position," Castroneves said before qualifying sixth on Saturday at Watkins Glen International, a high-speed road course that tests the mettle of the drivers. "We'll just keep pushing. Obviously, there are two guys in front of us. It's definitely becoming a little more tight, but there's 150 points (at stake in the final two races)."
Penske Racing teammate Josef Newgarden leads Scott Dixon by 31 points and Castroneves sits another 11 points back in third as he chases a title that has eluded him during his long tenure driving for Roger Penske.
At age 42, Castroneves has proven he's still a force. He's captured three poles this year to boost his career total to 50 and won at Iowa in July for his 30th victory and first in three years. In 15 races, he's started on the front row five times, eight times from the first two rows, and in the past five races has led 293 laps to move his career total to 6,023, fourth all-time. If not for an accident at Texas that relegated him to a 20th-place finish, his chances of winning the championship would be that much greater.
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Castroneves, the elder statesman of the series with 342 starts, continues to perform at a high level even as he faces the reality that Penske has been noncommittal about the future. Penske plans to field two Acura Daytona Prototypes in the 2018 WeatherTech Sports Car Championship and already has named two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya as the driver of one of the cars.
That's not even on Castroneves' radar with a title at stake.
"I'm not focused on what you think," said Castroneves, whose 41 second-place finishes rank second all-time to Mario Andretti (56). "I'm focused in what I'm thinking _that anything can happen at this moment. Probably what kept me motivated, not only because I love the sport, is this _ I know I can do it. Every time I go in, I have a chance, and I want to keep proving to myself that I can do it. I'm in the battle for the championship and I want to make this happen, for sure.
"I'm going to keep pushing. What's meant to be will be. I still have a lot of fuel to burn in my career."
Castroneves, who finished second to Takuma Sato in this year's Indianapolis 500, counts his three Indy 500 wins among his top thrills in the sport.
So, too, was the breakthrough moment in his career. Greg Moore had just signed to drive with Penske in October 1999 when he was killed in a crash at Fontana and Penske quickly inked Castroneves.
"When Roger called me and asked me to be part of the team" (was amazing)," Castroneves said. "I don't see myself driving for another team. I mean, it's 18 seasons. It's like you make your home here. But at the same time you want to keep learning, keep improving."
Among the disappointments, losing the title to Sam Hornish Jr. at Texas Motor Speedway by a fraction of a second. In all, Castroneves has finished second in points four times.
That he has not won a championship is befuddling at best to those who know him best.
"He's been very close," said Dixon, who's seeking his fifth title. "Maybe some could have gone a different way. Plain and simple, I am surprised. He's been in the battle so many times, had stellar years, won big races."
"He's had a lot of bad luck," added Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, the reigning series champion who says he often seeks advice from Castroneves. "The results don't really show his talent, what he really should deserve. I remember in 2014 when he was leading by 100 points and had mechanical problems, issues, bad luck.
"Crazy to think that he's lost some championships that way. He didn't slow down with age. Since I got here, he keeps going faster."