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Gentlemen (and ladies) ... start your engines!

Photo by Mike Groll

Photo by Mike Groll

INDIANAPOLIS -- Last year, Helio Castroneves wasn't sure if he'd be at the Brickyard or headed for a jail cell come the final Sunday in May. This year, the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 has come with less baggage for IndyCar's most successful driver.

Instead of worrying about his freedom, the defending champion is thinking only about racing -- car setup, pit strategy and how the speed-boosting "push-to-pass" button's introduction at Indy might affect his strategy.

And, of course, he might be scoping out the perfect place to climb the fence if he gets his fourth victory. A win Sunday would put Castroneves in the elite company of Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and A.J. Foyt, the only other four-time winners in the history of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

"It's nice, because I can just focus a little bit more on the race," Castroneves said. "Last year, all I was thinking about was the joy of being here. I had doubts about whether I'd be racing at all."

His future went into flux when the feds indicted him on tax evasion charges that carried up to a six-year prison sentence. Remnants of the case lingered through most of May, and along with worrying about all the usual racing issues that come up at Indy, Spiderman came to the year's biggest race with the specter of possible jail time on his mind.

Not until two days before last year's race was Castroneves cleared of the final charges. On race day, he started from the pole and was his usual, focused self. He won the race, becoming only the ninth driver to kiss the bricks three times at racing's most hallowed track. When it was over, the tears flowed freely. "Thanks for giving me my life back," he said to team owner Roger Penske, who supported him through the ordeal.

"He's part of our family, part of our team," Penske said. "The situation, it was very unfortunate. I hope he'd expect us to stand by him. Whether it was Helio Castroneves or a crew member having the same situation, we'd do the same thing."

While Castroneves goes for No. 4, Penske is at 15 and counting -- a record that almost certainly won't be broken. His main threat this year comes from the three-car team run by Chip Ganassi, who will become the first owner to win the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in the same year if Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon or Townsend Bell take the checkered flag. (Jamie McMurray won for Ganassi in Daytona.)

But as has been the case at the Indy 500 for the past several years -- pretty much since the open-wheel split that devastated the sport back in 1996 -- there is a short list of true contenders. Along with Castroneves, there are the other Penske drivers -- Ryan Briscoe and Will Power, this year's IndyCar series leader who will start next to Castroneves in the No. 2 spot.

Also on that list are Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick, though both Andretti Autosport drivers have issues.

Kanaan, a fan favorite who has never won here, crashed twice during qualifying and had to scramble to get his car back in shape simply to make the race. Now he hopes to become the first person to win from the dead-last starting position.

Kanaan said a friendly wagering pool has developed in his trailer about how many cars he'll pass during the first lap. Among the tools at his disposal will be the "push-to-pass" button -- a booster that provides 18 seconds of extra horsepower but can be used only 15 times in the race.

"I thought I had no pressure because I'm dead last anyway, I can't lose any position," Kanaan said. "Now, if I only pass two cars, people are going to go 'Only two cars? Geez.'"

Along with handling his own problems, Kanaan spent part of qualifying weekend playing psychologist to his teammate, Patrick, who came unhinged after a poor effort that left her in the 23rd starting spot. After complaining about her car's setup in an interview played over the track PA system, she was startled to hear loud booing from the crowd.

Suddenly, IndyCar's most popular driver might not be that anymore -- either because fans are tired of the excuses, don't like hearing her turn on her teammates, or are unhappy because she is now splitting time between open-wheel and NASCAR. Or all of the above.

"No way you should speak so badly about a team that's worked day and night and so hard for you," said Tomas Scheckter, who will start 20th. "And I think it's a driver's fault, as well. A lot of times on a bad car, I blame myself. Maybe I wasn't giving good enough information to the engineers to help them sort it out."

Indeed, it seems everyone at Indy this week has an opinion about Danica.

She has owned up to making the mistake of criticizing her teammates, but insists there are issues with the car, which produced her first start outside the top 10 in six races here. The numbers didn't get much better Friday; Patrick's fastest lap on Carb Day, the last practice day, was 222.306 mph, more than 3 mph slower than Franchitti, who was fastest.

Patrick is one of a record four women starting in the Indy 500.

Last year, she finished third -- the best finish by a woman in the history of the race. But she is mired in 16th place in the standings, a spot she insists has nothing to do with her NASCAR debut.

"It's completely not true," she said.

When it comes distractions, though, nobody handled them better than Castroneves last year.

The 35-year-old Brazilian described being on an emotional roller coaster as he remained on the sidelines, his fate undecided while his case wound through the legal system.

Castroneves, who repeated this year with wins in last week's qualifying and Friday's pit-crew contest, said memories of the fans at the Brickyard kept him going through the bad times.

"When I came back here, the wound was still open," he said. "It was not even a month after the whole trial. There was a big wound there. The fans kept me healing. That made a big difference."

If he wins Sunday, he will join Foyt, Mears and Unser as the fourth driver to win four times at Indy. Say what you will about the current stature of the Indy 500, there is no more exclusive club in auto racing.

"For me, they're the gods of racing," Castroneves said. "They drove so many things. Right now, it's a dream come true just to be in this position."