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Canadian James Hinchcliffe (27) runs off the road in Turn 5 during the IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Alabama auto race in Birmingham, Ala., Sunday, April 7, 2013. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the race. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)
Canadian James Hinchcliffe (27) runs off the road in Turn 5 during the IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Alabama auto race in Birmingham, Ala., Sunday, April 7, 2013. Ryan Hunter-Reay won the race. (Butch Dill/AP Photo)

Motorsports

IndyCar veteran Helio Castroneves leads points standings after two races Add to ...

While it’s too early to call just two races into the season, perhaps 2013 will finally be the year that veteran Helio Castroneves gets his coveted IndyCar title.

Although there are still 17 stops to go on the 2013 calendar, the Penske driver has looked particularly racy so far this year and that should make him one of the favourites to walk away with his maiden championship at the end of the season.

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The 37-year-old Penske driver from São Paulo, Brazil, has a pair of podiums in his first two starts of the young season, which has him leading the point standings.

But don’t mention the title yet because right now he’s thinking a bit more short-term.

“You have to take as it comes – you have to enjoy the moment, but work for it,” he said following his third-place finish in Sunday’s Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsport Park.

“I’m excited when I get out of the car obviously with that achievement we got. We are going to Long Beach [the next race on April 21] with good points in the bag, but we looking for our opportunity to win a race.”

Castroneves led 24 laps late in Sunday’s Barber Motorsport Park but could not hold off eventual winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, of the Andretti Autosport Team, who snatched the lead with 14 of 90 laps to go. He was also passed by Ganassi’s Scott Dixon a few corners later, dropping him to third at the flag.

At the time, the Penske driver was on the slower black “prime” tires, while the rest of the front-runners were on the softer “alternate” rubber, which offer more grip and consequently more speed, but wear faster.

“When we took the lead with the black tires, it was 19 or 18 laps to go, Scott and Ryan, they had the reds, it would be very difficult to hold onto those guys,” he said.

“I did everything I could to brake deep as possible [into corners], but I couldn’t do much. At the end of the day, third place for us is good.”

After taking second place in the season opener two weeks in St. Petersburg, Fla., Sunday’s third put Castroneves atop the point standings with 79, nine better than second-placed man Dixon. Hunter-Reay is third with 66. Drivers get 50 points for a win.

A veteran of 16 seasons, Castroneves is fourth among active drivers with 27 wins and is one of only 10 drivers who have won the Indianapolis 500 three or more times. Dragon Racing’s Sébastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti, of the Ganassi team, are tied for first in wins among active drivers at 31. The career leader is A.J. Foyt with 67.

Although Castroneves has found success in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” he has never taken home an IndyCar title. He has finished second in the IndyCar standings twice, in 2003 and 2008. He was fourth overall last year.

Although he got out of the gate quickly, Barber also marked the second consecutive start where Castroneves saw a race slip away in the final stages. The veteran made a mistake on a late restart in the season opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two weeks ago, handing the lead to Canadian James Hinchcliffe. The Andretti driver drove flawlessly to hold the Brazilian at bay for 26 tension-filled laps to take his first IndyCar victory.

Things didn’t exactly go Hinchcliffe’s way on Sunday either, after he was an innocent bystander in a first lap accident and suffered a flat tire. To make matters worse, the wheel with the flat fell off his car and the safety crew had to stash it behind a wall out on track after just three laps.

The plan was to get the car back to the pitlane during a subsequent caution, but it never came and Hinchcliffe sat helpless in his car for almost 75 laps before giving up hope. He took it all in stride, making many crack a smile when he got out of his car and had huge stretch as if he just woken up.

“I wish I could have taken a nap, but these race cars are going around making all this noise. It’s really rude of them,” he joked later.

“We got hit on Lap 1 and when we got the call for one to go [for the restart] the wheel came off. I was hoping they were going to let us tow back and throw a new one on because nothing else was bent. It’s a weekend to forget.”

The mishap pushed Hinchcliffe to fifth in the points with 56, five behind teammate Marco Andretti.

While Hinchcliffe hopes to put his Alabama weekend behind him, Castroneves knows his early success at Barber might prove to be decisive when the season wraps up at California’s Auto Club Speedway in late October.

“Those points are very valuable if you thinking about the long-term: Last year the championship was lost by, what, three points,” he said, referring to the margin between 2012 champion Hunter-Reay and Penske’s Will Power in the final standings.

“We got to keep putting ourselves in those opportunities and the win is going to come. With that, I’m going to add more points, but I’m extremely excited.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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