It's never too early to start writing "season preview" articles in the IZOD IndyCar Series when your subject drives for one of the best teams in motorsports and has never finished worse than sixth in the points.
So it goes for Helio Castroneves, the affable Brazilian who will enter his 11th season with Penske Racing in 2010.
In each of his first 10 seasons, Castroneves won at least one race, including three Indianapolis 500s (2001, 2002, 2009). With Penske cars a class above most of the field in the past few years, that streak appears safe for 2010 as well.
Castroneves had a rough 2009 season off the track; his legal issues are well documented. But his off-track problems only caused him to miss one race, allowing him to make his season debut at the first IndyCar Series race at Long Beach. In his first time driving the car in months, he finished a respectable seventh.
Castroneves then backed that up with a second-place finish at Kansas, showing that even with the disadvantage of having missed a race, he could be a championship contender.
If skeptics wondered how missing a race would affect Castroneves in the points, his performance at Indianapolis removed all doubt about his status as a championship contender. He qualified on the pole, nearly .8 miles per hour faster than Ryan Briscoe, his teammate, won the pit stop competition on Carb Day, and led 66 laps on the way to his third Indianapolis 500 victory.
After a win the next month at Texas, however, Castroneves' season began to spiral downward. He had finishes of 12th or worse in three of the next seven races, retiring at Richmond and Toronto and finishing 12th at Mid-Ohio. His second place at Edmonton during that span was his best finish for the remainder of the season.
His failure to finish both the Infineon and Chicagoland races eliminated him from title contention, and he had to settle for fourth place in points, scoring 433 for the season. Champion Dario Franchitti, second-place Scott Dixon, and third-place Briscoe each had over 600 points, which emphasizes the extent to which Castroneves' performance fell off at the end of the season.
Obviously, 2009 was a trying and pressure-filled year for Castroneves, and his finishes at the end of the season showed the effects of mental fatigue. As cathartic as the win at Indianapolis was, the stress of the beginning of the season took its toll on the driver; he wasn't the same driver as in 2008, when he took 11 podium finishes.
But with his legal troubles in the distant past, all Castroneves has to worry about is the fact that he's never won a championship. With his focus completely on trying to bring Roger Penske his 13th open-wheel championship, Castroneves will be a much better driver in 2010 than he was in 2009.
Expect strong performances at tracks like St. Petersburg (two wins and a second in his last three starts there), Texas (two wins and a second in the past four years), Edmonton (second-place finishes in each of the past two years), and, of course, Indianapolis. Castroneves' weakest track is Iowa, where he has a best finish of seventh in his career.