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Castroneves finally wins one

Helio Castroneves and Marlboro Team Penske ended a season of disappointment in victorious style, claiming the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway by winning a two-lap shoot-out to the finish line. The win was the first of the season for Castroneves, who won four consecutive pole positions to end the season but hadn't finished better than fifth in the three previous races

"We did it, finally," Castroneves said. "It's great momentum for the off season. It never goes the way you want it. Hopefully next year we'll be more competitive."

As Castroneves celebrated his win, Tony Kanaan celebrated the IRL IndyCar Series championship he clinched two weeks ago at California Speedway. He completed all 3,305 laps this season, believed to be the first time a driver has done so through the course of an entire season in a top-level racing series.

"We set ourselves up now," Kanaan said. "It's going to be hard to match this. We'll always try to make it better for next year, but we're going to have to work very hard to make it as good as this one. It was a great season."

Castroneves scored the win by excelling at something that isn't considered his forte - restarts. With a car that wasn't geared for quick starts, Castroneves left Kanaan and Wheldon in his wake with jump that some considered too early.

"Did Brian call?" said Castroneves said, referring to IRL senior vice president of operations Brian Barnhart. "Let's see if it was too early. I don't think it was. They were warming up the tyres a little too late. This is one of those places. If you're not paying attention to what you're doing, you might get in trouble. I did the best I could. I'm extremely happy about it. That's what you have to do to win races."

The official boxscore wasn't released until nearly two hours after the race while IRL officials reviewed the restart. They eventually approved the final finishing order but reportedly were considering financial penalties against Castroneves.

Castroneves began accelerating between the third and fourth turns. While some saw his quick foot as a response to an unusually early green flag, others - namely those he left behind - weren't as complimentary.

"I don't think he deserved to have the win taken away, but I do think a fine is in order," said Wheldon, who was edged at the line for second by Kanaan in a photo finish. "What he did was wrong... You've got to get some consistency in the calls from the chief steward. I have a great deal of respect for Brian Barnhart, but there's got to be some rule-following. He definitely went very, very early."

Castroneves said he accelerated early to avoid the accordion-like backup the routinely occurs on slow restarts. When he stepped into the throttle, Castroneves said, Kanaan and Wheldon responded.

"I was trying to make the pace a little bit faster to make sure we avoided an accident," Castroneves said. "Every time you start too slow, that's when things hit the fan. When I stepped into the throttle, they seemed to follow me. They started backing off. They thought I was going to life, but I never did."

Kanaan and AGR officials also questioned Castroneves' restart, but said they wouldn't pursue the issue beyond a discussion with Barnhart. "We have restart cones, and he definitely didn't restart on the cone," Kanaan said. "But I'm not going to complain. We have officials for that, and if they think that was the right move, then I'll support them. If they think it's wrong, then they should do something about it. He didn't restart on the cone, but whether that's right or wrong isn't my call."

The win also ended Honda's run of 14 consecutive wins this season. Toyota won the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Sam Hornish Jr., then watched as Honda claimed the spoils of the season, including Kanaan's championship and Buddy Rice's win in the Indianapolis 500.

"None of the Toyotas were winning," said Castroneves, who finished fourth in the final IndyCar standings behind Kanaan, Wheldon and Rice. "When everybody started working together, there's no question we found something. We got much stronger. We were very consistent. We finished ahead of a lot of Honda engines. It's better late than never."

Castroneves's No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Toyota-powered Dallara motored past Wheldon's No. 26 AGR Honda/Panoz G Force with 20 laps remaining in the 200-lap race. With 15 laps left, Dario Franchitti and Alex Barron crashed, sending Barron to Harris Methodist Hospital for treatment of undisclosed injuries. With two laps remaining, the race resumed, and Castroneves quickly separated himself from Kanaan and Wheldon.

"My car was very good on new tyres," Castroneves said. "That's where I made my moves. Toward the end, I thought the other guys would go faster, but they didn't. My car was actually faster."

Vitor Meira finished fourth, followed by Adrian Fernandez, Scott Dixon and Mark Taylor. Scott Sharp, Townsend Bell and A.J. Foyt IV rounded out the top 10.

"I had some understeer at the start, but I knew if I stayed with the lead pack that I would be OK for the end," said Meira, who raced among the leaders throughout the 300-mile race. "It was a shame that we didn't get those 15 laps, but I just hope that Alex and Dario are OK. They took a hard hit."

Franchitti, who broke a bone in his left foot when the right rear wheel broke on his car during practice Saturday, was helped from his car after Sunday's crash. Favouring his left leg, he was helped to an ambulance and taken to the infield care facility, where he was later released.

"It was the same mechanical failure at the back of the car as yesterday," Franchitti said. "I feel sorry for Alex, and I just hope nothing is wrong with him. That's twice that this happened this weekend, two mechanical failures, the same thing. I ended up in the wall twice. Right now, I'm not very happy."

Barron was following Franchitti through turn four when the No. 27 Andretti Green Racing Honda/Dallara suddenly broke away. The spin collected Barron's car, sending it into the SAFER barrier alongside Franchitti's. Safety workers needed several minutes to extract Barron from the No. 51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Chevrolet-powered Dallara. Fitted with a neck brace, Barron was placed on a stretcher and taken by ground ambulance to the Bedford, Texas, hospital. Immediate word on his condition was not available Sunday afternoon.

Kanaan finished the season with the lap record and by finishing among the top five in 15 consecutive races. His worst finish of the season - eighth - came in the Homestead opener.

"It's a bunch of guys doing what they love to do," Kanaan said, crediting the crew on his No. 11 AGR Honda/Dallara. "When you put so much effort into it, it makes a difference. We're together. When they wake up in the morning, I see that they want to do this. They want to go to work. They want to be there. They want to make the race car work. That's how you make an unbreakable car."

Rice, who had a shot at unseating Wheldon for second in the final standings, dropped out on the 40th lap with an electrical issue. "It's a shame to finish the season this way," Rice said. "It's been a great season for me and the team, especially considering where I was at this point last year - sitting on the pine."

Meanwhile, Castroneves' victory finally gave him the opportunity to climb the catch fence on the frontstretch, a move he made famous with his first Indy 500 win in 2001. He hadn't won a race since August 2003, when he prevailed at Nazareth Speedway.

"We finally got our win," Castroneves said. "Hopefully this is good for next season."

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