INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves understands the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval better than most.
He's won three 500 titles, finished second three times and started from the pole four times. Fourteen of his 19 career starts resulted in top-10 finishes and from 2007-18, he completed a record 2,310 laps without dropping out of the race.
So when the Brazilian star returned to the historic 2.5-mile oval Wednesday for the first practice sessions, it sounded strange to hear Castroneves would be participating in the track's two-hour refresher course.
“It was good,"he said Wednesday. “We have a good plan and you know the car was pretty darn good, it felt the same as when I left it."
That's good news for Castroneves, who is embarking on his 11th quest to become the fourth member of the four-time winner's club. It will be his third attempt as essentially an Indy specialist.
In some ways, little has changed through the years.
He still strolls through Gasoline Alley with his neatly-trimmed, jet black hair, dressed in a yellow driver’s suit. He's still working for Roger Penske, still driving the No. 3 Chevrolet and still getting advice from four-time winner Rick Mears. Castroneves' competitive spirit is as strong as ever, too.
But in other ways, things have changed drastically.
When he first came to this track, Castroneves was a 26-year-old full-time driver from the rival CART Series. His Spiderman fence-climbing celebrations were a hit with the fans and he became an international sensation when sashayed his way to the “Dancing With The Stars” title in 2007.
Today, 12 years after the open-wheel split ended, many of the drivers Castroneves grew up competing against have either stepped away or been forced out of the sport. Some even died. And now, without his long-time partner and daughter at Indy, the 45-year-old Castroneves will try to qualify weekend for the rescheduled Aug. 23 race that will be run with 250,000 empty seats.
“It's definitely tough to see Indy without fans," Castroneves said. “That's the biggest part of it, but I think we're all looking toward the future and if we behave by wearing masks and washing our hands and social distancing, we can go back to normal soon or maybe the new normal.”
Yet if Wednesday’s practice demonstrated anything, it's this: Castroneves still has it.
Despite a 14-month hiatus from IndyCars, he quickly climbed to the top of the speed charts during an unusual cast of rookies and refreshers.
The group included Fernando Alonso, the two-time world champion from Spain, who posted the fifth-fastest lap of the day. There was JR Hildebrand, who came within one turn of winning the 500 as a rookie in 2011, and Pato O’Ward, who is fourth in points this season but failed to qualify for last year’s 500. Also in the mix were British driver Max Chilton, a Formula One veteran, and promising Dutch rookie Rinus VeeKay, who is being coached by fellow countryman and two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk.
When full practice resumed, Castroneves needed less than 90 minutes to crack the top five with his fastest lap of the day, 222.929 mph. He wound up 10th overall and was the second fastest of Penske’s four drivers. Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden wound up sixth at 223.188.
But after next week's race, Castroneves faces a murky future.
With an expiring contract and Team Penske announcing it will not compete next season in the IMSA SportsCar Series, where Castroneves has been driving since 2018, he could become a free agent for the first time in two decades.
Unlike Tony Kanaan, one of his closest friends, Castroneves isn't ready to bid farewell to Indianapolis just yet. He'd like to return to the IndyCar circuit full time next season, and the best way to sell himself would be to show he can still win at Indianapolis.
“Look, I can't thank Roger and (Tim) Cindric enough but business is business," he said, referring to Team Penske's president. “Don't get me wrong, the sports cars, what I learned, I don't want to just let those three years go by. I'm glad for that opportunity. It was good, but I will fight for an opportunity because I still have a lot of fire in me."
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP