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Dario Vs. Helio: The Showdown For Immortality Looms Sunday

For the past 22 years, the most exclusive club in the Indianapolis 500 has been limited to just three men. Legendary names all, these three race drivers are the only men to win the world’s biggest race four times in their career, and their names have taken on mythical presence.

A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

That could change in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Two drivers in their own ‘Race for Four” are attempting to become the fourth member of this exclusive club of four-time winners.

Helio Castroneves of Team Penske is the only driver to score victories in his first two Indy 500 starts, with his impressive win as a rookie in 2001 and his disputed victory over Paul Tracy in 2002. Castroneves became the next driver in line to race for a fourth win when he drove to the 2009 Indianapolis 500 checkered flag to score win No. 3.

Last year, Dario Franchitti won his third Indy 500 in a thrilling finish when he held off a charging Takuma Sato in the first turn of the final lap after Sato went low into the turn trying to make the race-winning pass. The two cars touched, and Sato’s car slammed into the Turn 1 wall while Franchitti was able to keep control and take the checkered flag under caution.

“That was a fun race to win,” Franchitti said. “It was a very satisfying race. In 2010, it was a lot different because we led from the front all day. In 2012, we were spun on pit lane on lap 15 and had to fight back from the very back. We kept our head and were able to get back to the lead pack very quickly. To go into that last lap was very intense and could have gone either way there. To come out with that win was pretty incredible. It was almost such a shock that it did come close to not happening in that incident in Turn 1, so by the time I got back to Victory Lane I was shocked by what happened there.”

It was Franchitti’s third Indy 500 win in his last five attempts (he missed the 2008 “500” while racing in NASCAR) and created a storyline that will make this year’s Indianapolis 500 stand out as two drivers attempt to be the first to the checkered flag in the “Race For Four,” becoming the fourth four-time winner in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and joining the most exclusive club in all of auto racing.

“There is a club of Indy car drivers, and maybe I’m a little different because I love the history of this sport and revere the guys who have won before,” Franchitti said. “One thing winning an Indy 500 or winning multiple Indy 500s has allowed me to do is spend more time with them, whether it is Rick Mears or A.J. Foyt or Johnny Rutherford. To get to spend time with these guys – I just can’t believe I can do that. It’s one of the great things of what I do for a living. I get to hang out with my heroes. That is pretty cool.

“I’m very proud to have my picture made with Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser and Helio Castroneves as the living three-time winners. That makes me very proud. If I could make that step and win it another time, I would be immensely proud. To find myself in this position going for four is surprising sometimes. I’ve said it many times I was happy with one, so to find myself in this position, I’m absolutely delighted.”

The potential of a fourth Indianapolis 500 win has been a focus of Castroneves’ attention since he won the 2009 race, but he has fallen short the past three years. He finished ninth in 2010, 17th in 2011 and 10th last year. But with Franchitti showing tremendous momentum at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning two of the last three 500-Mile Races, Castroneves wants to make sure he gets there ahead of the Scotsman.

“I will not stop until I win another Indianapolis 500 because I have the team and the capability to make that happen,” said Castroneves, the popular Brazilian. “The `Race for Four’ is a great aspect for this season for the fans and the media. I believe Dario and I have enough fans to generate a lot of talk. A lot of people want to see history being made.

“It’s been 22 years since Rick Mears won his fourth Indianapolis 500, and only three guys over 100 years have done it. I’m very fortunate to be part of it. I guarantee team owner Roger Penske wants to get it rather than let Chip Ganassi get it.

“I think about it. I want to put myself in a position to win. The number is part of the effort that you have done in the past. You can’t think about what you did. Certainly it is great for the press and the fans, but I don’t think that I want to win a fourth one just to make it the fourth one – I want to win the Indy 500, period. The last few years there have been some changes to the engine. I made some mistakes in 2010 when I was in position to win it again by starting on the pole position. It’s little things that we let escape, and that is what makes a difference. We have to put ourselves out there, and Roger Penske is thinking the same way.”

Franchitti is part of a potent two-car effort at Target Chip Ganassi Racing that also includes 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon. Talented newcomer Charlie Kimball drives a third Ganassi-owned entry in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Franchitti knows the winner of the Indianapolis 500 must beat 32 other drivers that take the green flag. But he also realizes there is a race within a race against Castroneves.

“Since 2007, we have been in contention every year to win the ‘500’ both with Andretti and with Target, but so has Helio and a lot of other people,” Franchitti said. “Would I love to win four? Of course, I would. I would love to beat Helio to it, but it is going to be a battle. To go to Indianapolis thinking you are going to win is not the smartest thing. You go in there and put yourself in the best position. You go in there and prepare as well as you can and then race as hard as you can. That’s all you can do.

“Talking to the guys who really have excelled there, I have talked a lot to Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt, and they have told me that, as well. The difference between success or not is tiny.”

When Castroneves and then-teammate Gil de Ferran led Team Penske back to Indy in 2001, they gave the winningest team owner in Indy 500 history, Roger Penske, his first 1-2 finish at the Speedway. It also launched Castroneves on a path to stardom.

“Indy was my first oval win ever in 2001,” Castroneves said. “Because the place is so challenging, and even though the four corners look the same, it’s not. It’s not laying down the throttle and lay down the ride like some of the ovals. You have to drive it. You have to really drive the car and anticipate some of the change, and that is why it suits my style.”

Success didn’t come quite as easily for Franchitti. His first Indianapolis 500 was for Team Green – the forerunner of Andretti Autosport – when that team was a full-time CART participant in 2002. He actually thought running the Indy 500 would be a distraction to the team’s bid for a CART championship, and the three drivers that came to Indy that year – Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Franchitti – struggled in qualifications.

But the race was a different story. Tracy nearly won in the disputed contest that ended when the yellow light was displayed for a crash just as Tracy was about to pass Castroneves for the win.

“Nobody knows how anybody else’s races are going or has gone or the problems they face in each particular race,” Franchitti said. “My first year I really struggled, but quite frankly, the car and engine were crap because we didn’t understand it as a team. In 2003, I missed the race (due to injury), but in 2005, I was very competitive there. In 2004, I started to understand it better. It’s one thing being quick there; it’s another thing getting over that hump and getting that first win and get everything aligned on that day. When it does happen, it’s a great feeling.”

Franchitti admitted he didn’t fully appreciate the Indianapolis 500 until that first race in 2002.

“It’s well-documented I love the history of this sport,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite things. When I got there in 2002, I thought it was a huge distraction to what I was doing to driving in the CART championship. It seemed a massive pain, to be honest. Then I went into the race and got a flat tire early on and got a lap down because of that, but as that race went on, a light bulb went off: `Ahhh, this is what everybody talks about. This is it.’

“From then on, the love affair with me and the Indianapolis 500 started. I love it. It’s one of those few things in life the more you do it, the more it means to you.”

When Emerson Fittipaldi gave Brazil its first Indianapolis 500 winner in 1989, a young go-kart driver back home took notice. That helped motivate Castroneves to return the Brazilian flag to victory lane in the “Crossroads of America” in 2001.

That win was special. But Castroneves’ most recent victory stands out because of the circumstances surrounding it. He was acquitted of income tax evasion more than one month earlier.

“I believe the 2009 win was the one with all the circumstances that happened where I couldn’t even be in the race,” Castroneves said. “Then to get out there with a win was awesome.”

Penske said: “Helio coming off a rough time; a rough period, coming back to the Speedway and being able to demonstrate he was as good as he was when he won his first Indy 500. To wipe away some of the tears and what he had been through over the month prior of issues of taxes, it was a terrific day for the team and for Helio, and I couldn’t ask for any bigger reward.

“I think he is passionate about the Speedway. He knows the importance of winning that race. To me, he is very good on the high-speed ovals. His combination of experience and commitment to the Speedway has given him great success there. Obviously, Rick Mears has been a great supporter of his and really a coach over the years, and that is important because he is another four-time winner.”

Castroneves believes Franchitti is a formidable foe.

“He has the experience, and Dario is a talent, plus the team,” Castroneves said. “Ganassi is the toughest competitor out there right now along with Team Penske. Most of the ingredients are similar to what we have. They are tough teammates that make the car go fast. The only thing that Ganassi does not have is the amount of victories that Team Penske has, and trust me, Roger wants to keep that going.”

But Castroneves believes he has a secret weapon in Mears, who remains a highly respected team member at Penske and can offer his advice to the team’s three drivers at Indy, including Will Power and rookie AJ Allmendinger.

“I always think that way but more important than that Rick is my spotter, so I can always talk to him during the race,” Castroneves said. “All these wins are related to Team Penske and Rick Mears. He has been there for all three of my wins, and hopefully he will be there for my fourth win, so we are in the same group now.”

Two drivers in top equipment who have proven they have a mastery for the Indianapolis 500. So which won will be the “First to Four?”

“I think Dario has done a terrific job the last couple of years with his wins,” Penske said. “He is a calculating driver. I’m disappointed we haven’t given our guys the best cars the past two years. I think the Chevrolet engine will be the engine to have at the Speedway this year, which will give us the speed and the durability. It’s going to be a great matchup between Helio and Dario.

“It’s going to be great to see both of those drivers going for their fourth Indianapolis 500 championship.”

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