Where does Helio belong in Indy annals?

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It may be too early to think about, but it's a tantalizing possibility as of Sunday afternoon: Helio Castroneves, five-time Indianapolis 500 champion. "You keep thinking about five and I've wanted three," the Brazilian said after claiming his third 500 victory. "Now we've just made it three and now, I need to be thinking about four. I will be thinking about it and I'll be dreaming about it. But we gotta work for it. Certainly, we have a team to do that, but we have a long way. Right now, I'm just gonna enjoy this moment, because it's very special."

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Photos: Helio Castroneves won a wild, crash-filled running of the Indy 500. Check out all the best shots.
It seems surreal that anybody would break the record of four Indy wins, but the dreams of five also crossed the mind of Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, Castroneves' race strategist and boss. "When I look at it now, I remember as a kid growing up here, remembering how cool it was to wait for A.J. (Foyt) to win his fourth and what that meant and all the hype about A.J. and his fourth, and again with (four-time Indy winner Rick) Mears," he said. "I kinda lived it as a kid and it's kinda cool to sit up here and think that he's got a chance to do it." Whether he reaches the pinnacle of five wins or not, Castroneves' third Indy 500 triumph cements him as one of the best we will ever see at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But where does he fit between four-time champions like Foyt, Mears and Al Unser and one-time champions like Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal? Let's put Foyt, Mears and Unser at the top; they have the most wins. If it all came down merely to numbers, Castroneves already would have eclipsed all one- and two-time winners in popularity. But it's not that simple. Racing is an evolving sport and an argument can be made that drivers like Andretti and Rahal had it tougher. Throw in the fact that the 500 is currently contested in a one-chassis, one-engine series that tries to keep costs down with spec equipment and the argument starts to tip toward the past.
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You also have to remember the stories behind their wins. Mario's lone 500 win in 1969 came after several years of heartbreak at the Speedway. In '66 and '67, he won the pole but failed to finish on race day. The 1968 race saw him bow out on the second lap. Considering that '69 is the only 500 victory he and his family have, it makes it all the more precious. For Rahal and his faithful, there's a similar sense of poignancy. When he won at Indianapolis in 1986, his team owner Jim Trueman (the founder of the Red Roof Inn hotel chain) was stricken with cancer. Eleven days after he celebrated with his driver, Trueman died. Both Andretti's and Rahal's stories have become the stuff of legend. With his third Indianapolis 500 victory, Castroneves' story has attained that status. Here is a man who had spent months in a courtroom alongside his sister battling to stay out of jail. All the while, he had to deal with public scrutiny, humiliation and embarrassment. Since this all comes in a time where everything is regarded as news thanks to the 24/7 news cycle of the Internet, the argument begins to tip back toward the present. The sheer amount of public exposure expands the scope of Castroneves' triumphs. But really, this debate may not be settled because it may simply boil down to the generation gap.
In Andretti's and Rahal's time, the Indianapolis 500 and Indy racing were No. 1. NASCAR was basically a regional sport. In Castroneves' time, the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" and IndyCar racing are still in rehab after the IRL-CART split. NASCAR rules the American racing landscape and the public has a myriad options to entertain themselves. For those who remember the golden years of the sport, Mario, Bobby, A.J., Rick and Al Sr. will always be the best. To this generation, we may wind up putting Castroneves on the pedestal. If Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti or Dan Wheldon wins another 500, we'll think about doing the same. But regardless of which side we pick in the debate over these legends, one thing is certain. Castroneves' three victories are quite a feat. "What a story Helio is," teammate Ryan Briscoe enthused after finishing 15th. "It's just incredible. It's just unbelievable for him. I'm so happy for Helio. It's just a Cinderella story. He's like a newborn kid and on top of the world." And that's something most people can agree on.

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