Helio Castroneves wins in Iowa to end 3-year drought

Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, reacts to fans as he drives into Victory Lane after winning a IndyCar Series auto race Sunday, July 9, 2017, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

NEWTON, Iowa (AP) — As he crossed the finish line for his first victory in three years, Helio Castroneves screamed “Finally! Finally!” over the radio to his joyous crew.

For both Castroneves and Team Penske, the win Sunday at Iowa Speedway was long overdue.

Castroneves dominated the IndyCar race on the short oval, leading 217 of 300 laps for his first victory since 2014 and Team Penske’s first win in 11 tries in Iowa.

It also was the 30th career victory for Castroneves, the Brazilian who was winless since the first race of the Belle Isle doubleheader in Detroit in June 2014.

“It’s just like the first time, man,” said Castroneves, who was able to dust off the fence-climbing victory celebration he’d become known for. “We’ve been close so many times, and finally luck was a little bit on our side.”

J.R. Hildebrand was a career-best second, followed by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Penske’s Will Power and Graham Rahal.

Series leader Scott Dixon finished eighth, two weeks after winning at Road America.

Castroneves has won the Indianapolis 500 three times and remains among the most popular drivers in the series. But his star had faded in recent years as teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power secured championships.

Castroneves had finished second eight times since his last victory, and there had even been recent speculation that his time at Penske could be coming to an end.

“I never doubt. That wasn’t even in my thoughts,” Castroneves said. “I’ve had great support — and especially Team Penske. They never gave up on me. We were always there. We were always good.”

Hildebrand, best known for crashing out on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, got ahead of Castroneves after the field came in for their final pit stops. But Castroneves was back in front with just over 30 laps to go and used the fresh air — and the good fortune of a long, green-flag run — to cruise to victory.

“You’ve got to have reliability and you’ve got to have a guy that knows how to climb the fence,” owner Roger Penske said.

Hildebrand led 38 laps, matching the runner-up finish he had six years ago in Indianapolis.

“Under some slightly different circumstances, we had a car to win,” Hildebrand said. “Hopefully this can get us kicked off for the stretch run.”

Hunter-Reay, the Iowa winner in 2012, 2014 and 2015, again got his season back on track on the short oval. He finished on the podium after five straight races where he wound up 13th or worse.

“I don’t need good luck. I don’t need bad luck. I just want none at all,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion. “I just want no variables to come into play that are outside of our control. That’s what we had.”

Castroneves also passed Al Unser Sr. for fourth in career laps led with nearly 6,000 — and after finally snapping his losing drought, Castroneves was in the jovial mood IndyCar fans have come to expect from him.

“Get the hell out. Really?” Castroneves said upon finding out how many career laps he has led. “Oh my God. That’s a fun fact, huh?”

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