(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 4-17-09)
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- There were a number of places Helio Castroneves could have ended up spending Friday evening.
On a Penske Corp. jet, winging his way to Long Beach, was undoubtedly the best one possible.
After a federal jury acquitted Castroneves Friday morning on six of seven counts in his tax evasion trial in Miami, Penske Racing set a contingency plan in motion to get the 33-year-old Brazilian back to work as quickly as possible.
After a cross-country journey, he's set to rejoin the IndyCar Series field Saturday morning to practice for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in his familiar No. 3 Dallara-Honda. Will Power, who was deputized for Castroneves in his absence, will move to a third Team Penske entry sponsored by Verizon Wireless.
Power, whose only other confirmed race with the team for the rest of the season in the Verizon car is the Indianapolis 500, was fastest in practice at Long Beach on Friday afternoon.
"I'm happy for Helio," Power said. "It was very tough for him going through that.
"I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this team," he added. "I didn't give it a second thought -- I was ready for this. It wasn't a huge shock to me and I just want to make the best of this opportunity."
The goodwill toward Castroneves was widespread up and down pit lane.
"It's fantastic news for Helio," said former CART series champion Jimmy Vasser. "I can only imagine the ordeal he went through; it really must have taken a toll on him. It's exciting news, and it's going to be great to see him back."
Power could certainly make it tough for Penske to shut down the newly formed No. 12 team if he duplicates his Long Beach victory from a year ago. Meanwhile, he's ready to be a good team player and hand a quick car over to Castroneves.
"I don't know how [Castroneves] drives," said Power. "But he's going to learn what my car feels like tomorrow!
"It's definitely a pretty good car. The guys will transfer that over to my car and it should be exactly the same. Those Penske guys are pretty accurate and they don't often get it wrong."
In Castroneves, the series gets back one of its most popular stars and strongest championship contenders.
"It's cool," remarked Scott Dixon, who narrowly defeated Castroneves for the 2008 IndyCar Series title. "I think it's definitely a nice surprise for everybody, though it's a big change for Will, obviously.
"It's unfortunate [Helio] went through what he did. Hopefully they can sweep that under the carpet and move on to have a great season."
Team Penske president Tim Cindric is confident that it won't take Castroneves long to get up to speed when he gets back into the car Saturday morning.
"This will be my 10th season with Helio, and I know his focus and his concentration is among the best," said Cindric. "I think the best way to quantify that is the trust that I have in him at a place like Indianapolis, where you're sitting there qualifying at 5:59, or whatever it is. I put him up against the best of them when it comes to being mentally prepared.
"I know he wants nothing more than to get back in that race car, and I have 100 percent confidence it will be like riding a bike for him."
It's somewhat ironic that the news of Castroneves' acquittal greatly overshadowed another important announcement for the IndyCar Series: Paul Tracy's deal to run the Indianapolis 500 for KV Racing Technology in a car sponsored by Geico Insurance.
Tracy and Castroneves have had a frosty relationship since the Brazilian was declared the winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500 in controversial circumstances. Tracy appeared to pass Castroneves just before a yellow was thrown for an accident and his appeal was denied by Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George.
Like Power at Penske, Tracy could parlay a good run at Indianapolis (where he has not competed since the bitter loss seven years ago) into locking up sponsorship for additional races in the second half of the season.
"We're going to do the best we can to generate as much media exposure and excitement around Geico and their product and their brand, and if that leads to more, then that would be icing on the cake," Tracy said. "But there's been no promises made."
Tracy being Tracy, he added:
"As I was laying on the couch watching the disaster of a race at St. Pete, I felt like I could get out there and clean everybody's clock, the way they were driving," he said. "So from that standpoint I feel I've still got the skills to do this. You can only judge somebody on their last race, and the last race I came, I got off the couch and finished in the top five.
"So we're going to do the best we can, and we're going there to win. Nothing else really matters to me other than winning the race. Finishing second, third, fourth is really not an option in my book."