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Castroneves wins at Sears Point

Winner Helio Castroneves, Infineon Raceway, 2008Helio Castroneves put the finishing touches on a week of resurrection for Team Penske by winning the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County on Sunday at Sears Point, and putting himself back into contention for the IndyCar Series championship.

Then, without a proper fence for his signature post-victory celebratory move, Castroneves climbed the main grandstand and dived into a group of fans.

On Wednesday, the mood wasn't so joyful at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina. The team's transporter carrying both primary road-racing cars had caught fire in Wyoming.

Both cars and most of the equipment in the transporter were destroyed, and the team was forced to piece together two backup cars already at Sonoma from a previous test session.

"It was a great and special week for us," Castroneves said. "It's just a reward. It's like all the unexpected hard work paid off. This just proves that the guys keep these cars in fantastic shape. As drivers, we didn't know the difference between the cars."

The win was more than just a noteworthy recovery from trying circumstances; it also put Castroneves closer to Scott Dixon in the race for the IndyCar championship. Dixon finished 12th Sunday, allowing Castroneves to cut 35 points from his lead.

Dixon now leads by 43 points with just two races remaining - Detroit and Chicago. "When you lose 35 points in one race, it makes it a lot easier for him to come back," Dixon said. "It was definitely a bad day."

Castroneves ended a 29-race winless streak - he hadn't won since April 2007 - that included seven second-place finishes this season. After the car was destroyed in the fire, Castroneves joked that he'd lost his favorite seat.

"I just found a new one," Castroneves said after the win. "What a guy. I fall in love easy, and I just found another one. The guys did a great job to not make me feel any difference."

Castroneves finished 5.3 seconds ahead of teammate Ryan Briscoe, giving Penske its second 1-2 finish in five weeks - and certainly the team's first 1-2 after both primary cars were destroyed by fire.

"This shows the determination of the group we have and the depth of the team," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said. "For those guys to do such a good job that we qualify first and second and finish first and second is amazing. It wasn't as easy as I wanted it to be, but it worked out in the end."

Castroneves took the lead for the final time on the 59th lap of the 80-lap race when E.J. Viso made his final pit stop. Briscoe, who was on a different pit sequence than his teammate, finished second behind Castroneves, while Tony Kanaan was third.

The strategies employed by Briscoe and Kanaan required that they save fuel, while Castroneves set his meter to rich and was pedalling hard.

"I literally was at the limit of the car," Castroneves said. "The good news is I never put a wheel off the asphalt. I never locked wheels. I was just pushing.

"It was an interesting situation. It paid off, and it was a lot of fun. Sometimes conserving fuel is the worst thing to do. We didn't conserve fuel at all. We just kept pushing."

Kanaan, who also closed on Dixon and is in fourth place in the standing and now 130 points off the lead, didn't enjoy the fuel saving strategy, which many teams blamed on the 80-lap length of the race.

"It's boring," Kanaan said. "I mean, racing is about going fast, not going slow.

"Obviously, you do whatever you can to finish on the podium, but people are telling you on the radio that you have to hit a certain fuel number. Drive slow, but be fast. Don't get passed. It doesn't make any sense."

Following Kanaan was Dan Wheldon, who is third in points, just four ahead of Kanaan. Danica Patrick finished fifth, Viso sixth and Vitor Meira seventh. Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson and Mario Moraes rounded out the top ten.

For Dixon, who has won six races this season, the win was particularly demoralising.

"We just did absolutely nothing right," he said. "I don't know why we stayed out when the car in front of us is three seconds slower and we can't make up any track position.

"Everything we did was wrong. We lost a ton of points. This is a race that's very tough. Unfortunately, we got the bad end of the stick."

Castroneves had no such issues in pursuit of the tenth win from the pole in his career. He has now won a race in each of his nine seasons with Team Penske, including a record eight consecutive seasons with a win in the IndyCar Series.

This one, however, was born of extenuating circumstances. At 2:30am Wednesday, on a remote stretch of Interstate 80 outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, red-hot wheel bearings led to a fire that did severe damage to a Penske transporter and its contents. In that trailer were both primary cars intended for use at the Infineon race.

"I enjoyed Saturday and Sunday," Cindric said. "Other than that, it was a difficult week."

Instead, the team refitted two backup cars that were already at the track - one of which didn't have an engine - for use as Castroneves' No. 3 car and Briscoe's No. 6 car.

Two other oval-track cars, intended for use in the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway, were shipped on short notice from North Carolina to California to serve as backups and provide parts for the cars used at Sonoma. The result of the rebuilds were two stellar cars from the ashes.

"As soon as I jumped in the car, it was fantastic," Castroneves said. "It was exactly the same way we've always prepared the cars."

Even Briscoe, who had won twice this season while watching his veteran teammate come close to victory again and again, was amazed at what his team was able to accomplish.

"It's a huge testament to the team," Briscoe said. "It's any team's fear that something like that could happen. Hats off to the team. It's not like we were around the corner here from North Carolina. It wasn't an easy turnaround.

"I think we were lucky that we already had cars here from the test last week. That helped a lot, but the guys worked hard. It comes down to preparation in the shop. We were prepared for the next races, and we were prepared to get these cars turned around."

But most of all, the proof was in Castroneves' knowledge of what his team had given him. Before the race, an ABC/ESPN cameraman asked Castroneves where he would celebrate - seeing as how there was no catch fence near the start/finish line, but a short fence below the grandstand.

"I told them where I was going to go," Castroneves said. "Ask the cameraman. He was like, 'Hey, I don't want to jinx it, but where are you going to be climbing the fence?' I'm like, 'Right there. Make sure you wait for me there.'"

The IndyCar Series resumes next weekend with the Belle Isle Detroit Grand Prix. The Chicagoland season finale is set for September 7.

Pos  Driver             Team                 Time
 1.  Helio Castroneves  Penske               1:50:15.8282
 2.  Ryan Briscoe       Penske               +     5.2926
 3.  Tony Kanaan        Andretti Green       +    16.6032
 4.  Dan Wheldon        Ganassi              +    17.7720
 5.  Danica Patrick     Andretti Green       +    25.8458
 6.  E.J. Viso          HVM                  +    29.3472
 7.  Vitor Meira        Panther              +    29.9895
 8.  Graham Rahal       Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +    40.4577
 9.  Justin Wilson      Newman/Haas/Lanigan  +    42.0357
10.  Mario Moraes       Dale Coyne           +    50.0106
11.  Buddy Rice         Dreyer & Reinbold    +    55.0361
12.  Scott Dixon        Ganassi              +    55.7145
13.  Hideki Mutoh       Andretti Green       +    56.3186
14.  Marco Andretti     Andretti Green       +    57.5400
15.  Oriol Servia       KV                   +    58.3690
16.  Mario Dominguez    Pacific Coast        +  1:00.7387
17.  Bruno Junqueira    Dale Coyne           +  1:00.9454
18.  Ryan Hunter-Reay   Rahal Letterman      +  1:00.9466
19.  Townsend Bell      Dreyer & Reinbold    +     1 lap
20.  A.J. Foyt IV       Vision               +     1 lap
21.  Enrique Bernoldi   Conquest             +     1 lap
22.  Darren Manning     Foyt                 +     1 lap
23.  Ed Carpenter       Vision               +     2 laps
24.  Jaime Camara       Conquest             +     2 laps
25.  Will Power         KV                   +     3 laps
26.  Marty Roth         Roth                 +     4 laps
27.  Tomas Scheckter    Luczo Dragon         +    24 laps
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Castroneves leads Penske front row