INDIANAPOLIS — Helio Castroneves capped a perfect month of May with the biggest win of all, pulling away to capture his third Indianapolis 500 just 5½ weeks after being acquitted of tax evasion charges.
Castroneves, who hopped back in his Team Penske race car as soon as he was cleared of charges that could have sent him to prison for six years, became just the ninth driver to win the historic race three times — and he's only one win away from joining the most elite group of all: four-time winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
The 34-year-old Brazilian 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.
This day 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.
"This is incredible," said Castroneves, who was sobbing as he got the trademark bottle of milk.
Roger Penske earned his record 15th Indy win as a car owner. When he leaned in to hug Castroneves in Victory Lane, the driver said, "Thanks for giving my life back."
Castroneves also claimed the pole and won the pit-stop competition before completing his Indy sweep on race day. Actually, he picked up another victory, as well, learning Friday just before he went out for the final practice that the government had dropped the last tax charge against him, the only count the jury couldn't reach a verdict on.
"This is the best month of May ever," Castroneves said.
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.
The lengthy caution period 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, about the length of two football fields.
"I had a really good car," Patrick said. "Oh well, what are you going to do?"
Added Wheldon, "At the end, I just didn't have enough for Helio."
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, son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, crashed on the 56th lap in virtually the same spot where he slammed into 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.
"I got mid-corner and the car just went straight. It was the same exact thing as last year," the 20-year-old Rahal said. "I felt I was being patient. I thought I wasn't going to have any problem, and all of a sudden it just went."
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 slammed into the SAFER barrier again before finally coming to a stop.
The popular Kanaan wasn't seriously hurt, but he sure was aching after the big hit.
"I went on quite a ride," he said after getting checked at the infield media center. "I knew it was going to be a big one."
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.