Castroneves and Franchitti make it a memorable weekend

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Helio Castroneves' return to racing and Dario Franchitti's comeback to victory lane in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach capped off an unforgettable weekend in the IndyCar Series.

Castroneves rejoined his Penske team after being acquitted of federal tax evasion charges Friday in a grueling seven-week trial.

"It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare," a tearful Castroneves said during a news conference held Saturday in Long Beach, California. "Everybody knows that I'm a pretty emotional guy. And to go through this with my family, it was very difficult. Not only the family but the fans, they were amazing."

Castroneves, with very little preparation time, performed well over the weekend, despite crashing in qualifying. He started eighth and finished seventh in his first time in a race car since last October.

"Finally I got a rhythm and was able to get going, and it felt so much better," he said. "We got caught by a yellow and that dropped me to where we finished, but that's racing. I'm so happy to sound like a driver again and very happy to finish and back into the championship."

Helio Castroneves performed well in his return to racing.
The Brazilian driver did lose control of his car and slammed into the wall during Saturday's qualifying session. He complained of a headache following the incident. Indy Racing League officials cleared him for the race the next day after he showed no signs of a concussion.

Nonetheless, Castroneves felt relieved from his previous legal issues, and certainly was in good spirits in his return to the racetrack.

"This is therapy for me to forget what happened," he said.

Will Power had been filling in for Castroneves in the No.3 car, but Penske switched gears upon the news of Castroneves' acquittal and moved Power to their No.12 entry.

Power had an impressive showing with his new team at Long Beach, starting on the pole and finishing second to Franchitti. The Australian driver will sit out next Sunday's race at Kansas, but he will race again in the May 24th Indianapolis 500. Power is under contract with Penske; however, his driving status with the team remains unclear after Indy.

"I just kept my focus all weekend," Power said. "I knew coming into it that there was a chance that Helio will be back, and Penske Racing told me exactly what the deal was and always kept me up to date. So it was no surprise to me. I knew what I was going up for."

Power drove for KV Racing Technology during his rookie season in IndyCar in 2008. He won at Long Beach in the Champ Car-finale one year ago. After joining IndyCar, Power earned his first series pole in front of his home crowd in the October exhibition race at Surfers Paradise, Australia.

Franchitti, meanwhile, captured his first IndyCar victory since the 2007 season-ending race at Chicagoland.

Despite leading 51 of 85 laps, Franchitti's key to victory was attributed to pit strategy - both of his stops occurring just before full-course cautions for incidents involving Mike Conway. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver recorded his first IndyCar win on a road course/street circuit. His previous eight victories have come on ovals.

In 2008, Franchitti spent most of the season in NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series competition, but his efforts in stock car racing did not go as well as he and Ganassi expected. His Sprint Cup team at Ganassi ceased operation due to lack of sponsorship in the middle of the season.

Franchitti rejoined Ganassi's IndyCar team in September, replacing Dan Wheldon in the No.10 car. After making his first IndyCar start for Ganassi at Australia and then a victory and fourth-place finish (St. Petersburg) so far this season, it appears Franchitti's return to America's most popular open-wheel racing circuit has been a success.

"After everything we went through last year and then (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) coming up and saying, 'Hey, do you want to drive my Indy car,' and now we're back here winning together," Franchitti said. "Having finished second to his cars (at Long Beach) twice, I said to him, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,' and here we are."

Franchitti competed in the Grand Prix of Long Beach six previous times - all CART/Champ Car sanctioned - finishing second to Alex Zanardi (1998) and Juan Pablo Montoya (1999). Zanardi and Montoya drove for Ganassi at the time.

With IndyCar lacking the amount of stars it once had, Franchitti's return this season and Castroneves' tax troubles coming to an end have fortified the popularity and news coverage the sport desperately seeks today.

Sure, Danica Patrick's fame continues to escalate, as she was again featured in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue in February. But is IndyCar's "golden girl" capable of winning a championship, yet another race?

Castroneves and Franchitti have also both garnered fame on and off the track.

Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 and '02, and finished second to Scott Dixon in last year's points championship. He elevated his celebrity status in 2007 when he and partner Julianne Hough won "Dancing With The Stars," the hit reality competition show on ABC.

Franchitti is married to actress Ashley Judd, who celebrated her 41st birthday on the same day of his Long Beach victory. He won the 2007 Indy 500 and series championship. Franchitti and Dixon battled for the title all the way to the final lap at the '07 race at Chicagoland, with Franchitti taking the checkered flag and the title. He drove for Andretti Green Racing at the time, but is now paired with Dixon, who redeemed himself last year with the championship.

Both Castroneves and Franchitti sure did make it a weekend in Southern California worth remembering in IndyCar history.

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