'Tough beginning, but the best month of May ever.'

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INDIANAPOLIS - This wasn't just a race, it was vindication.

Helio Castroneves crossed the finish line Sunday beneath an overcast sky at the Indianapolis 500, then loosed enough tears to float his race car another 500 miles down the road.

He cried because a third win gained him entry into a charmed circle of champions, only nine of whom have been lucky and courageous enough to capture that many in the 93 times the race has been run. And he cried because the crushing weight of a three-month legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service was finally, unmistakably in his rearview mirror.

But mostly, Castroneves cried because his fate once again rested in his own two hands.

"You guys don't understand," Castroneves roared from the winner's circle as a 250,000-strong crowd roared back just as loudly. "You guys kept me strong."

A lesser man might have been broken by what Castroneves went through.

In March, he was standing trial for federal income tax evasion and looking at six years in prison. He was acquitted, but the final charge against him wasn't dropped until Friday, two days before the biggest event in his sport. Compared to that ordeal, the race could not have seemed all that taxing.

Castroneves grabbed the lead coming out of a restart with 17 laps to go and never faced a serious challenge after that. He started on the pole, played it safe through the middle while ironing out a gearbox problem, then saw his opportunity and grabbed it by the throat. Then just like Rick Mears, one of three four-time Indy 500 champions that Castroneves will train his sights on next, he deployed smarts and patience to choke every last bit of drama out of the race.

The resemblance is hardly coincidental. Owner Roger Penske gave both men their shot at the big time and won their loyalty forever. He stood by Castroneves throughout his fight with the IRS and keeps Mears on the payroll as a driving coach and consultant. To no one's surprise, the two drivers found common ground and became fast friends.

"He's always taken to this place like a duck takes to water," Mears said. "He's a competitor, but he's a big picture guy also. And that's what it takes... around this place. He's very good, and what I mean by that is that he rarely puts a wheel wrong around here. He makes very few mistakes."

Both men are masterful in the maelstrom of a race, sifting through clues swirling around them at 220 mph and collecting just enough pieces to solve a tough puzzle. Yet Mears conceded he couldn't imagine the emotions Castroneves worked through in the quiet moments away from the racetrack, nor the joy he must have felt coming down the home straightaway in front this time.

"I know he was just glad to be here. But to have everything fall into place like it did," Mears said, "is just amazing."

Yet Castroneves' rivals sensed something different when he returned to the track. The bubbly Brazilian who electrified crowds at Indy Racing League stops and won an international following by waltzing off with the title on "Dancing With The Stars" two seasons ago was noticeably subdued.

"Just the kind of hug you get from him" is how IRL glamour girl Danica Patrick described it. "After what he's gone through, it was a different kind of hug.

"So I'm very happy for him," she added. "We're glad to have him back, and obviously he's very good for the sport."

It's funny how things work out.

Just last week, former NFL star Michael Vick walked out of federal prison still villified and nearly broke, a disgraced former con with no guarantee there will be a place for him in pro football if and when he's ready to go back.

Castroneves, on the other hand, was acquitted, then welcomed back to racing with open arms and the benefit of the doubt. With a quarter of the race left, his sister stood behind Castroneves' pit, her eyes shut tight and hands clasped in prayer. In short order, Helio's parents and his girlfriend locked hands and joined the vigil.

Given the chance to pick up where he left off, the Brazilian climbed back behind the wheel and wrote the perfect ending to what could have been a Hollywood script. Except that it was all true.

"Towards the end," Castroneves said. "I didn't touch anything on the car. When I got in the front, it was, 'Never look back.'"

He paused one more time to choke back tears.

"This race is magical. It was a tough beginning," he added, "but this is the best month of May ever."

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org


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