INDIANAPOLIS – Neither wind nor cool temperatures nor overcast skies could spoil Helio Castroneves’ limelight moment.

There was the Hollywood smile, the laughter, the jokes, even the tears.

You win the third Indy 500 pole of your career, you make the gamble of a second qualifying attempt pay off, you return to form after nearly losing your career because of tax evasion charges and somber spirits aren’t part of the picture.

So the two-time Indy 500 champ basked in Saturday’s $100,000 achievement while setting his sights on the big prize in two weeks.

“It’s a good start,” Castroneves said. “It’s two races here and we accomplished the first race. We have a lot of work ahead of us. That’s what we’ll focus on.”

Castroneves’ Saturday focus produced a winning four-lap average of 224.864 mph. That was just ahead of Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe (224.083 mph).

None of this would have happened if Castroneves had been found guilty in last month’s tax evasion trial.

“I thank (team owner Roger Penske) and (team president Tim Cindric) for being behind me all the way,” he said. “They gave me my life back by getting me in a racecar. This is what I love to do. This place is magic.”

Added Penske: “It’s special to see Helio on top. He earned it.”

Fellow driver Dario Franchitti knows how formidable Castroneves can be.

“Helio will be a huge pain in my butt all year,” he said. “He had a very difficult time. He’s turning it around. He’s going to be tough. Hopefully we have something for him come Memorial Day.”

Castroneves withdrew his first qualifying attempt of 223.943 (which was good for third) to go for pole glory.

His first two laps of 225.405 mph and 224.983 mph were by far the fastest of the day.

“It was a gamble,” he said.

“It was a big gamble. But we took a chance, it paid off and now we’re on the pole. That’s where the rest of them want to be.”

Castroneves’ gamble put the heat on Briscoe, the pole leader for most of the day. Should he scratch his 224.131 effort and take a shot at Castroneves or settle for second.

He didn’t settle. He took a shot in the final seven minutes and wound up slightly slower at 224.083, which kept him second. Franchitti, who missed last season while competing in NASCAR, was third at 224.010.

“Ryan wanted to have a go,” Penske said. “It was a tough call, but we had to give each of them a chance. We didn’t want to lose those top two spots, but it worked out.”

Briscoe set the tone in Saturday morning’s practice with a fast lap of 225.182, then followed it up with the early pole lead despite wind gusts ranging from 15 mph to 25 mph that made driving conditions difficult, especially around Turn Two.

“It was very windy and as trimmed out as we were, you feel it a lot,” Briscoe said. “Every corner felt different. Turn 2 was awkward with the tailwind going into it. You’re carrying a lot of speed and you’ve got less down force because the wind is behind you. It wants to push you out.”

Danica Patrick was as thrilled with her first qualifying run (221.272 mph average) as she would have been with a case of swine flu.

“The warm-up was not a lot of fun,” she said. “I was all over the place. I was very unhappy with the car.”

The car improved for the first qualifying run, but not enough to boost Patrick’s mood.

“This is the furthest I’ve ever been off in qualifying, so I’m not very happy about that, and very confused. I don’t have any idea why this car is so much slower qualifying.”

Patrick’s happiness didn’t improve much after her second qualifying attempt. The speed of 222.882 was a little faster, but still kept her seventh. She eventually fell to 10th.

Tony Kanaan’s car did not meet the weight minimum standard and was disqualified after a slow qualifying run.

His 223.612 mph average on his second attempt put him sixth, just behind Graham Rahal (223.954) and defending Indy 500 champ Scott Dixon (223.867) on the second row.

“We were down eight-tenths of a pound,” Kanaan said. “Those are the rules. It’s our mistake.

“IndyCar did me a favor because I don’t think I would have gone out again. I’m getting too old for this, so I wasn’t going back out there. I came back out, the track was better. The wind had died down.

“I kept my focus. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t unhappy. This is what I get paid to do.”

Former Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon spun his car in practice and suffered moderate car damage. He’ll try to qualify on Sunday.

Only 14 teams tried to qualify Saturday, mostly because the other teams lacked the speed to challenge for the pole. The first 11 positions were set Saturday. The next 11 will be determined on Sunday, with the final 11 spots scheduled to be finalized next Saturday.

Drivers got an early indication of potential wind trouble when Robert Doornbos crashed on Turn 2 in practice. He was treated and released from the Clarian Emergency Medical Center. He was cleared to drive, but because of extensive damage to his car, he didn’t try to qualify on Saturday.

“The guys did an amazing job of getting the car ready,” Doornbos said. “Everything felt good. We were just staring a run and the rear just went on me. I don’t know what happened.”

(c) 2009, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.).

Visit the News-Sentinel, at http://www.news-sentinel.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-09-09 1945EDT


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