Helio Castroneves did not enjoy the return to the cockpit he might have liked after a weeklong whirlwind of media activity. The three-time and now current champion of the Indianapolis 500 crashed in qualifying on his first lap, and will start 20th and last for tomorrow's ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt 225.
Castroneves was ninth fastest in practice at a speed of 164.523 mph (22.2096 seconds), four-tenths of a second adrift of his teammate and pace setter Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe continued to set the bar in qualifying with pole position.
It is not the first time the ebullient Brazilian will have to charge from the back of the field. At Chicagoland last year, he started 28th after his qualifying time was disallowed for dropping his left-side wheels below the white line. He committed the same infringement earlier this year at Kansas and started 21st.
But in both instances, Castroneves redeemed himself with a fine race drive. He won at Chicagoland by only a scant .0033 of a second (second-closest in series history), and finished second at Kansas this year. Scott Dixon was involved in both finishes, winning at Kansas and just coming up short at Chicagoland.
Fittingly, it was Castroneves who went out the car after Paul Tracy, who returns to the cockpit at least for this weekend driving for Foyt. A rough day of practice and qualifying sees "PT" start 16th, two spots worse than his car number, the legendary 14.
"Every time I have something to talk about, Helio just comes and upstages me!" Tracy joked after his qualifying run, which occurred moments before Castroneves tank-slapped the wall exiting turn 2.
"We really struggled today, with a conservative first lap, but steadily got better," Tracy said. "The first two sessions we were just lost. I didn't know what we had for qualifying."
Tracy said that the team owner was more frustrated with the crewmembers than the driver.
"It's definitely different driving for A.J.," Tracy said. "A.J. was angry with the engineers and the crew after the first session. He wasn't mad at me; we haven't gotten to that point yet."
For Castroneves, starting 20th comes after a week of focusing primarily on interviews. His final stop before returning to work came on Friday to media gathered at The Milwaukee Mile.
"The week was a roller coaster, after everything, and (the win) didn't really sink in," Castroneves said. "I wondered, what interview am I going to have today? But you have to make sure you're fresh for how to talk to people."
When he did have a moment or two to reflect, Castroneves acknowledged the positive impact of his fan support and how much racing affects his life.
"Racing is not only for what I do, but for my life," Castroneves said. "I really realized that I love what I'm doing, and I realized the fans were so incredible. I dedicated that race for them - they kept me strong."
Elsewhere in the paddock, as happened last year, one driver who started the race weekend will not be involved in Sunday's race. Last year it was Marty Roth, and today it was Stanton Barrett. The field drops from 21 to 20 after Barrett's incident in the morning's first practice session.
"Unfortunately, damage to the car will prevent the team from competing this weekend," said team co-owner Greg Beck. "Team 3G is taking the car back to Indianapolis to prepare for next week's race at Texas. Unfortunately, the car was damaged just enough that we couldn't really finish repairing it here."
The morning's first practice session also had an intriguing reason for caution. Though reported on the Daily Trackside Report as simply "debris in turn 3," series officials were actually chasing down a loose bunny rabbit that had scampered onto the track.
The final bit of news - other than the Indy Lights field had been reduced to 16 by either a smattering of accidents or a lack of available finances to fund entries - was that Tony Kanaan emerged at Milwaukee both bruised from his incident at Indianapolis and with his usual shaved head following the running bet between he and Dario Franchitti.
"Dario let me cut it after Indy," said Kanaan. "He either felt sorry for me after the crash or he thought I was too ugly for long hair."
Kanaan walked away from his mangled car at Indy after making a huge impact with the wall. Still sore from the wreck, Kanaan called the pain, "manageable."
After the second practice session, Kanaan took his time getting out of the car, gingerly pulling himself from the cockpit before slowly walking to the team's engineering stand. He ended the day third in both combined practice and on the grid.