In a flair for the dramatic that matched his charismatic personality, Helio Castroneves joined the exclusive club of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners with a stunning victory Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Castroneves matched A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) as four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The Brazilian’s previous victories came in 2001, 2002 and 2009, all as a full-time driver with Team Penske, the winningest team in Indianapolis 500 history.
But this one was different. Castroneves drove the No. 06 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing to the team’s first Indy win and first NTT Indycar Series victory. Castroneves, 46, also became the fourth-oldest winner in “500” history in his first Indycar start of the season, as he is scheduled to run only a partial schedule this year.
“It’s not the end; it’s the beginning,” Castroneves said. “I don’t know if it’s a good comparison, but Tom Brady won a Super Bowl, Phil (Mickelson) won the PGA, and now here you go. The old guys still got it, kicking the young guys’ butts. We’re teaching them a lesson.
“What a great team effort. Everyone was in sync. We didn’t make any mistakes. No. 4 – what a moment. I’m just so honored to be a part of this amazing group with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears. This is absolutely a dream come true.”
— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) May 30, 2021
Castroneves, who started eighth, finished a stirring duel with 24-year-old Spaniard Alex Palou over the closing laps by passing Palou with a daring outside move in Turn 1 on Lap 199. He held off Palou’s No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to win by .4928 of a second.
The scintillating finish was the climax to the fastest Indianapolis 500 in history, with an average speed of 190.690 mph in a race slowed only twice by cautions for a total of 18 laps, both race-record lows.
2019 Indy winner Simon Pagenaud finished third in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, .5626 of a second behind Castroneves. Pato O’Ward was fourth in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, while Ed Carpenter rounded out the top five in the No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet.
Just 1.2424 seconds separated the top five despite the last caution period of the 200-lap race ending on Lap 124.
Castroneves’ jubilant celebration thrilled the crowd of 135,000 fans under sun-splashed skies and temperatures in the high 60s. He climbed the frontstretch fence along with crew members and team co-owner Michael Shank.
Many current and past drivers rushed to congratulate Castroneves on becoming a four-time winner, with 1969 Indy winner Mario Andretti kissing him on the head in beatification. Foyt also sent Castroneves a message of congratulations.
“This stage is absolutely incredible,” Castroneves said. “I love Indianapolis. The fans, they give me energy! I’m serious.”
Castroneves made his final pit stop on Lap 172, followed by Palou on Lap 173. Palou slotted in front of Castroneves when he exited the pits, and they formed a three-car train with O’Ward in the virtual lead of the race, as numerous cars in front of them needed to make one final stop before the race ended.
Pagenaud, Sage Karam, Tony Kanaan and Santino Ferrucci peeled off from the lead for their final stops by Lap 180, putting Felix Rosenqvist, JR Hildebrand and Takuma Sato in the top three, respectively, and about 12 seconds ahead of Palou, Castroneves and O’Ward.
Meanwhile, Castroneves and Palou diced for position behind that lead trio, knowing they had plenty of fuel to reach Lap 200 and cognizant they would become the lead pack due to pit stops needed by the fuel-thirsty cars of Rosenqvist, Hildebrand and Sato if a caution flag didn’t fly late in the race.
That caution never came. Rosenqvist pitted from the lead on Lap 192 in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, and Sato was forced to dive in for a splash of fuel from the lead on Lap 193 in the No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda.
Castroneves inherited the lead on Lap 194, but Palou blasted past Castroneves for the lead in Turn 1 on Lap 196, reminiscent of Rick Mears’ decisive move against Michael Andretti in 1991 that led to his fourth win.
But Castroneves collected himself and placed his car in Palou’s draft on the front straightaway as they rocketed past the flag stand to start Lap 199. Then Castroneves returned the favor to Palou, using an identical outside move in Turn 1 to seize the lead.
Lapped traffic ahead over the closing laps posed a possible problem for Castroneves, but he used the wisdom gained over 20 previous “500” starts to hold off Palou, who showed skills beyond his years in just his second start.
“I’m super proud of finishing second,” Palou said. “It hurts a lot, but it was a good battle with Helio, and it’s better when you lose against the best.”
A caution on Lap 33 turned the race on its head early. Stefan Wilson locked his brakes and spun entering pit road in the No. 25 LOHLA SPORT/Cusick Motorsports Honda, hitting the outside pit wall with the right side of his car.
NTT P1 Award winner Dixon was among a group of cars that had not pitted before the caution, but those cars started to run out of fuel because the pits were closed while the AMR Safety Team removed Wilson’s damaged car. Dixon was leading when he, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi and five other drivers made emergency stops on Laps 36 or 37 for fuel. Dixon and Rossi’s cars would not refire, and they were a lap down when racing resumed on Lap 46.
Dixon raced back to the lead lap in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda, but he ended up finishing 17th. 2016 Indy 500 winner Rossi finished 29th in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda, two laps down.
Palou took the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship lead in this double-points race, building a 248-212 lead over six-time and reigning series champion Dixon.
The next NTT INDYCAR SERIES races are the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader, the headline races of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on June 12-13 on Belle Isle in Detroit.
The emotion is as real as the win.
— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) May 30, 2021
2021 Indy 500 stats and numbers:
- This is the fourth Indianapolis 500 victory for Helio Castroneves. He earned his first three victories in 2001, 2002 and 2009, all with Team Penske.
- Helio Castroneves joins A.J. Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) as the only four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500.
- This is the first Indianapolis 500 victory for Meyer Shank Racing. It also is the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory for Meyer Shank Racing.
- Helio Castroneves is 46 years, 20 days old today. He is the fourth-oldest winner in Indianapolis 500 history, behind Al Unser (47 years, 360 days; 1987), Bobby Unser (47 years, 93 days; 1981) and Emerson Fittipaldi (46 years, 169 days; 1993).
- Helio Castroneves became the first driver to win an Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske and win again with another team. He drove to victory for Meyer Shank Racing today.
- This is the seventh Indianapolis 500 victory for a Brazilian driver. Helio Castroneves has four wins (2001, 2002, 2009, 2021), Emerson Fittipaldi has two (1989, 1993), and Tony Kanaan has one (2013).
- This was the fastest Indianapolis 500 in history, with an average speed of 190.690 mph, breaking the record of 187.433 set in 2013.
- There were two caution periods for 18 laps today, both race records. The previous record for fewest caution periods was four, in 1990 and 2019. The previous record for fewest caution laps was 21 in 1976, 2013 and 2014.
- This is the first time car No. 06 has won the Indianapolis 500. It’s also the first time a car number starting with zero has won the race.
- There was a 12-year gap between Helio Castroneves’ fourth win today and his third win in 2009. That’s the second-longest gap between victories in Indianapolis 500 history, behind only Juan Pablo Montoya’s 15-year gap between victories in 2000 and 2015.
- This is the third time the Indianapolis 500 winner has started eighth. The last winner who started eighth was Kenny Brack in 1999. Danny Sullivan won from eighth in 1985.
- This is the 14th Indianapolis 500 victory for a Honda-powered car, second all time. Offenhauser engines powered 27 winners.
- Scott McLaughlin finished 20th, the top rookie finisher in this year’s race.
- There were 35 lead changes among 13 drivers today. That’s the most lead changes in the Indianapolis 500 since 2017, when there also were 35 lead changes. The race record is 68 lead changes, set in 2013.
- Scott Dixon led twice today, extending his Indianapolis 500 record for times led to 58.
- Scott Dixon has led at least one lap in 14 of his 19 Indianapolis 500 starts, tying Tony Kanaan for the all-time record.
- Will Power did not lead a lap today, ending his race-record streak of eight consecutive Indianapolis 500s (2013-20) leading at least one lap.
- Conor Daly, Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay led laps today for the first time in their Indianapolis 500 careers. Daly made his eighth start, and Palou, O’Ward and VeeKay each made their second respective starts. A total of 236 drivers have led laps in the Indianapolis 500.