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Castroneves might shift to NASCAR

A move by the two-time Indy 500 winner and popular figure would be a blow to the newly reunited open-wheel series.

May 21, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Helio Castroneves, who is seeking to win his third Indianapolis 500 this weekend, said he is considering following several other open-wheel racers and moving to NASCAR but has made no decision yet.

"I won't deny that I'm thinking about it," Castroneves said Monday night. "It would be great to one day try the [stock] cars. But at this point I'm focusing on Indy cars and winning the Indianapolis 500 again."

The ebullient Brazilian, 33, is one of the IndyCar Series' most popular drivers, and his fame shot even higher this spring after he won the "Dancing with the Stars" television competition. Castroneves won with dancing partner Julianne Hough based on viewers' votes, and he was in Los Angeles this week to help crown the show's latest winners.

His switch to stock-car racing would be a big blow to the IndyCar Series just as it's trying to bolster its popularity after its reunion with the other major U.S. open-wheel racing group, the now-defunct Champ Car World Series.

IndyCar is making a stepped-up effort to market its drivers, much as NASCAR already does, especially Castroneves and Danica Patrick, who last month became the first woman to win an Indy car race. Castroneves said the renewed interest in the IndyCar Series sparked by the merger and Patrick's victory is one reason why he might not switch.

However, Castroneves said he's also intrigued how other open-wheel drivers have migrated to NASCAR and is debating whether such a move is appropriate for him. "It depends on the opportunity," he said. "It's all about the timing and I'm not sure if the timing is right."

Castroneves' opportunity is better than many other drivers, though. He now drives for Team Penske, whose owner Roger Penske already has a three-car NASCAR Sprint Cup team and could add one more under NASCAR's rules. And one of Penske's stock cars is driven by three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr., Castroneves' former teammate, who switched to NASCAR this season. (Penske's other Cup drivers are Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.)

Hornish was the latest big name former open-wheel racer to jump to NASCAR, a growing list that includes Juan Pablo Montoya, 2007 Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti and Patrick Carpentier.

Castroneves said his contract with Team Penske is up for renewal after this season.

Asked if he had talked to Roger Penske about his interest in NASCAR, Castroneves said, "We're going to talk after Indy."

Castroneves won the Indy 500 in 2001 in his first attempt and then won it again the following year -- the only driver to win the race in his first two attempts. He also became known for his trademark victory celebration of climbing the fence after taking the checkered flag.

He starts fourth in this year's Indy 500 on Sunday.

Success on NASCAR's predominantly oval tracks has not come quickly to the former open-wheel racers who have switched, although Montoya won his first Cup race last year on the curvy road course in Sonoma.

But Castroneves said he doesn't see that as an obstacle, and that "a good driver is going to be a good driver."

Charming and gregarious, Castroneves would seem especially well-suited for NASCAR, where the drivers' personalities are integral to the sport's popularity.

If he switched to NASCAR, Castroneves expects that NASCAR fans would embrace him. "I think it would be a good reception," he said.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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