AP National Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The tears flowed as soon as Helio Castroneves turned his red-and-white car into Victory Lane, and he really got emotional when Roger Penske leaned over to give his driver a hug.
"Thanks for giving my life back," Castroneves said between sobs.
He could've lost it all. He could've gone to prison for six years. Instead, he was celebrating another win at the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves capped a perfect month of May by winning at the Brickyard for the third time Sunday, a triumph that was especially poignant given what he was facing just 5½ weeks ago.
From accused tax cheat to Indy champion — this race was a lot longer than 500 miles.
"Let's celebrate now!" he screamed to the quarter of a million fans.
Castroneves became the ninth driver to win the historic race three times, and his timing couldn't have been better. On April 17, he was acquitted of most charges at a federal tax evasion trial, and the remaining count was finally thrown out last Friday.
"This is the best month of May ever," Castroneves said, and it was hard to argue otherwise.
He won the pole. Then he won the pit-stop competition. And now, the biggest win of all, No. 3 for the guy who drives car No. 3, leaving him only one win away from joining the most elite group of all: four-time Indy winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
For Penske, it was Indy win No. 15 — more than any other car owner and ensuring that the Captain has never gone more than three years between wins at this place, except for the time he didn't run because of a split in open-wheel racing.
"He smiles only two times: on his birthday and when he wins the Indy 500," Castroneves said of his boss.
Castroneves pulled away over the final laps to beat Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick, who eclipsed her historic fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005 by crossing the strip of bricks in third.
Patrick, however, was never really a factor on this day. It belonged to Castroneves, who pumped his fist all the way down the final straightaway.
"I want to climb the fence," said the driver known as "Spiderman," referring to his signature celebration.
Then he did just that, climbing out of his car after the victory lap and scaling the fence along the main grandstand with his pit crew. Someone tossed him a green-and-yellow Brazilian flag.
It was clearly a popular victory. The fans who turned out on a sweltering late spring day were on their feet, cheering and waving their caps as Castroneves sped around the 2.5-mile oval for the final time.
"You guys kept me strong," Castroneves told the crowd. "You guys are the best. I'm honored to have fans like you.
Crashes took out some of the biggest names in the field, including Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. The most frightening wreck occurred on lap 173, when Brazilians Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos got together going into the first turn.
Meira's car veered head-on into the padded outside wall. He was removed from the car, put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital complaining of severe lower-back pain. Later, IndyCar officials said he sustained two broken vertebrae in his back, but the injury should be treatable without surgery.
The lengthy caution period after the Meira-Matos crash ensured that everyone had enough fuel to get to the finish. When the race restarted with 17 laps to go, Castroneves got a great jump on Wheldon and Patrick and pulled away to win by nearly 2 seconds, more than two football fields.
"At the end, I just didn't have enough for Helio," said Wheldon, who won the race in 2005.
The winning speed was 150.318 mph in a race that had only four leaders: Castroneves and Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe, along with the last two winners, Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
Dixon, the defending champion, led more laps than anyone (73), and 2007 winner Franchitti, returning to Indy after a disappointing foray into stock cars, was out front for 50. Castroneves led 66 and Briscoe the other 11.
Castroneves started from the pole and led the first seven laps, then laid back for a good part of the overcast, sweltering afternoon. Finally, on a restart after the sixth of eight yellow flags, Castroneves surged past Dixon to reclaim the lead with 59 laps to go.
It was his the rest of the way.
"I'm very happy for him," Patrick said. "I'm glad to have him back, and obviously he's great for the sport."
Indeed, Castroneves is perhaps the most recognizable open-wheel driver in the U.S. outside of Patrick, his appeal growing even more after he was crowned "Dancing with the Stars" champion in 2007.
Then he made headlines of a different kind, dragged into court in shackles after a federal jury accused him of hiding millions in an offshore company.
Penske never lost faith in his driver, and promised that his car would be waiting if his legal woes were resolved. After missing the season-opening race, Castroneves was acquitted by a jury and immediately hopped on a plane for an event at Long Beach, Calif.
No. 3 was waiting, just as Penske had promised.
"I had so much faith that Helio hadn't done anything wrong," the team owner said. "We were never, ever going to leave his side."
Dixon was delayed getting a tire changed with 39 laps to go and slipped back to sixth, failing to become the first driver since Castroneves in 2001-02 to win back-to-back 500s. Franchitti settled for seventh after he also got held up on pit road late when he tried to pull away with the fuel hose still attached.
Two drivers who don't even have full-time rides in the IndyCar series crossed the line behind Patrick. Townsend Bell was fourth, while Will Power — who filled in while Castroneves was on trial — finished fifth in a third Team Penske car.
It may have been a perfect month for Castroneves, but it wasn't a perfect race. He had problems with his radio all day, and there were gearbox issues when he came into the pits. But he knew what to do on the track.
"Once I got in the front, it was, 'Never look back,'" Castroneves said.
Rounding out the top 10 were Ed Carpenter in eighth, Paul Tracy and Hideki Mutoh. Tracy was racing at Indy for the first time since the disputed 2002 event, when a late caution froze the field just as he was going past Castroneves. The outspoken Canadian is still convinced he won that race — his appeal was turned down — but there was no doubt about this one.
It was Castroneves all the way.
"Wow, three," he said. "I can't believe it."
The race had barely started when Mario Moraes drifted to the outside and made contact with Andretti, sending both cars into the wall going into the second turn.
The Andretti curse remains in force at Indy. Marco said there was nothing he could do when the 20-year-old Moraes pinched him into the wall.
"The kid doesn't get it, and he never will," said Andretti, only 22 himself. "He's just clueless out there."
Neither driver was hurt, and Andretti even got back on the track for 56 laps to finish 30th in the 33-car field.
Rahal, the 20-year-old son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, crashed on the 56th lap in virtually the same spot where he hit the wall a year earlier. He started fourth and was running fifth when his car went high coming out of the fourth turn and slammed the barrier. He was not injured.
Kanaan was running third when something snapped in his No. 11 car, sending it straight into the wall at about 190 mph. The helpless machine slid through the third turn and into the SAFER barrier again before finally coming to a stop.
The popular Kanaan wasn't seriously hurt, but he sure was aching. It was another painful Indy moment for the hard-luck Brazilian, who had led the race a record seven straight years — but is still seeking his first 500 win.
"Me and this place," Kanaan said with a sigh.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.