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Associated Press photos
In what has become his trademark victory celebration, Helio Castroneves climbs the safety fence as he celebrates his third Indy 500 victory in 2009. Castroneves says he thinks less about his three wins than the nine 500s he didn’t win.

Two race for 4th win

Franchitti, Castroneves take aim at exclusive Indy 500 club

Dario Franchitti won the 500 last year, his second win in the last three 500s.
Franchitti has spilled the milk three times for winning the Indianapolis 500.
Roger Penske signals his 11th Indy 500 win as he celebrates with Helio Castroneves in 2001. Castroneves won by 1.7373 seconds over Penske teammate Gil de Ferran.

– Of course you can get the man’s jaw to drop. Just show him that graven image.

Dario Franchitti is the most imperturbable of men, but like anyone who’s paid to go fast, what lies behind him both awes and disorients him. And so here is the Borg-Warner Trophy – 77 years of extreme history – and here is that graven image of Franchitti staring out from it. And here is Franchitti himself, in its thrall.

“Rocks me back on my feet,” he says.

And then: “You see all the people beside you, whether it’s great drivers that are friends that you know, and guys you consider heroes, guys from really the past who you never met that you are part of – that whole hundred years of tradition now. And you’re on that very short list. That’s very, very special.”

Even more so when you’ve won the Borg-Warner, emblematic since 1936 of winning the Indianapolis 500, not once, not twice, but three times.

Only seven drivers in the 96 runnings of the 500 know what that feels like, and two of them – Franchitti and Helio Castroneves – go off in pursuit of a fourth win Sunday.

Which would make them part of an even more elite group that currently has a membership of three: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

Welcome to the quest for four.

Even now, 34 years since that May afternoon when he became a piece of motorsports history, Rick Mears doesn’t quite get the question.

“When did you realize you had won the race?” someone asked him that day in 1979, when Mears was 27 and had won the Indianapolis 500 in just his second start.

“That’s like answering the question of what you’re gonna be thinking coming off the fourth corner,” Mears says now. “Are you kidding me?

“When did I realize I’d won? Well, when I came off of four and got beyond the pit entrance, then I said OK. Because I knew at that point I couldn’t hit the end of that wall. And I knew if four wheels came off the thing, I could pinball the thing down through the walls and slide across the finish line.”

He shakes his head. Everyone chuckles a bit.

“This place, you can’t get ahead of yourself,” Mears says. “You’ve got to stay in the moment.

“It’s a day at a time, a race at a time, a corner at a time.”

And so no surprise, when asked, that Mears says he and Castroneves have never discussed the prospect of No. 4, even though they’ve worked together for Roger Penske for years. It just doesn’t come up.

“I never thought about it, and I don’t think Helio does, either,” Mears says. “Every year, I approached this race as another race on another track. Whether I won it last year or the year before or never won it at all has nothing to do with how I approach it.

“Like I said, I never dreamed of being here, let alone being here and racing. Let alone winning. Let alone winning four times.”

And so the history, the looking back, comes later. For now …

Well, for now, Franchitti will tell you there’ll be no more pressure on him Sunday than on anyone else, because three wins won’t make him faster and won’t make his team work any harder.

And Castroneves says he thinks less about his three wins, and the prospect for a fourth, than the nine 500s he didn’t win.

“This place is more about (how) there are so many things that can go wrong and so few things that can go right,” Castroneves says.

“It’s simply right now about the mechanics of trying to put ourselves in a position to challenge on Race Day, trying to make sure the car is fast, consistent,” Franchitti says.

Part of that, of course, comes from their combined 22 years of experience here, which has taught them how quickly the place can turn and bite you. And part of it no doubt comes from the fact that their powerhouse teams – Penske and Target Chip Ganassi – come to Indy this year having yet to win a race.

Castroneves’ best finish is second; Franchitti’s is fourth. Castroneves goes off in the middle of Row 3 on Sunday, while Franchitti starts in the middle of Row 6 as the Honda engines qualified poorly again for the second straight year.

Of course, Franchitti went on to win last year, his second victory in the last three 500s. And between the two of them, he and Castroneves have won three of the last four.

And so the pursuit of No. 4 goes on, albeit with all the appropriate wariness.

“I feel blessed to (have) this opportunity, to be in this elite group,” Castroneves says. “(But) it’s all about putting ourselves in that situation. And the key to this place is when.”

And Franchitti?

“This is one of the few things I’ve done in my life that the more you do it, the more it means to you,” he said. “That’s a very odd feeling. You think what a challenge it is to race here, to try to win. It’s so difficult – look at some of the great drivers that didn’t get the opportunity even to win one.

“So I am very happy to have won one. Three is beyond anything I expected.”

But?

“But I really want the fourth.”

bensmith@jg.net

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