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Castroneves Back In Indy Spotlight Again

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Helio Castroneves came back to Indianapolis carrying all those familiar titles. Two-time winner, former pole-sitter and fan favorite. He also returned to his career-defining race with a new identity: Roger Penske's other guy.

Castroneves welcomes the change.

``I have to say I am a little more relaxed and that's good,'' he said. ``I can focus a little more on my job and a little less on all those other things.''

At least that's the way it was until he won this year's pole.

On another team, all those media requests, sponsor appearances and autograph sessions would fall primarily to Castroneves, one of five drivers with back-to-back Indianapolis 500 wins. For most of May, though, Castroneves has worked in the shadow of teammate Sam Hornish Jr., the defending Indy champion.

Clearly, Castroneves possesses star qualities. He's flamboyant, charming, hangs out with high-profile neighbors in Miami, climbs walls when he wins, and, of course, drives for the IndyCar series' most prestigious team. He's played tennis matches against Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis and given motivational speeches to the Indianapolis Colts. He boxes, swims, runs and speaks three languages _ Spanish, English and Portuguese _ fluently.

But on Team Penske, the top rewards go to the biggest winner _ and over the past year, that's been Hornish's role.

Hornish took the pole at Indy last year, then won the race with a remarkable pass of Marco Andretti yards from the finish line. The victory margin, 0.0635, was the second narrowest in the 90-year history of the race and is considered one of the most memorable.

It wasn't just Indy that cemented Hornish's image.

By season's end, he had reached Victory Lane four times and finished second five more times, enough to become the series' first driver with three career points titles.

So when Hornish returned to the 2.5-mile oval, all eyes were on the 28-year-old Ohio native.

``I expected coming in that there was going to be a lot more things that I was going to have to do and a lot more questions to be asked,'' Hornish said.

Their appointments reflect the disparity.

Even after Castroneves' pole-winning run May 12, a spokesman for Team Penske said Hornish had booked all but 15 minutes for the rest of the month. Castroneves' schedule, in contrast, was still pretty much open.

The lack of requests allowed Castroneves to concentrate more on racing, and the 32-year-old Brazilian has thrived. He's consistently been among the fastest drivers all month and now holds the highest-profile spot heading into Sunday's race thanks to Penske's maneuvering in qualifications.

The team decided to pull both cars out of line early in the afternoon on May 12, then waited nearly three hours for the track to cool before giving Castroneves a shot at qualifying. His four-lap average of 224.998 mph didn't even put him on the front row.

Hornish followed with two straight attempts, getting within a whisker each time of the pole. He would have been the first since Scott Brayton in 1995-96 to win it in consecutive years.

``You almost saw three consecutive runs,'' Hornish said. ``We were about ready to go do it again. But if you bang the wall on that one, you're done.''

Instead, Penske turned to Castroneves with only minutes left to qualify.

This time, Castroneves, using information gleaned from Hornish's team, delivered a nearly perfect performance. His four-lap average of 225.817 ended Dario Franchitti's five-hour perch on the pole. When Kanaan, Franchitti's teammate with Andretti Green Racing, couldn't beat that, Castroneves was back in familiar territory.

``Well, I guess we're going to be in the spotlight again,'' Castroneves said. ``And that's OK, I kind of like it.''
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