SRX takeaways: Helio Castroneves’ heist highlights season opener at Five Flags Speedway

Just 48 hours before the first SRX race of 2022, Helio Castroneves wasn’t even in the starting lineup. A last-minute change left him starting shotgun on the field, 13th at a track he’d never raced at before. Add in the sweltering heat, where drivers took off with in-car temperatures approaching 150 degrees, and it was one tall order for a 47 year old to handle.

“I pulled every string,” Castroneves joked, “Every sweat I had there.”

It turned out to be more than enough for the four-time Indy 500 champion to earn his first main event win in as SRX’s second year kicked off. Castroneves held off local ringer Bubba Pollard, NASCAR’s Ryan Newman and IndyCar rival Tony Kanaan down the stretch to become the sixth different winner in seven total SRX main events.

It was also a badge of honor for the open-wheel stars, making a statement early as we look as Five Things We Learned from the sophomore debut of this primetime CBS racing series:

Score one for IndyCar

Castroneves wound up taking both Heat 2 and the main event on a night where open-wheel stars shined. He joined Tony Kanaan and Paul Tracy to lead 104 of 143 laps, pulling ahead of NASCAR stars who failed to lead a single lap through the first two heats for the first time in SRX history.

“I wasn’t even supposed to be here today,” Castroneves joked, “And look, we ended up getting the trophy. It shows this series is amazing and I’m so happy, so happy.”

So is IndyCar, after their drivers won just once during the six-race tour in 2021 (Marco Andretti, Slinger). Last season, three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart cruised to the championship while fellow contenders didn’t come from the open-wheel ranks (Bobby Labonte, Ernie Francis Jr.).

Castroneves is now eyeing at least one future NASCAR start, the Daytona 500. He made a bet with SRX CEO Don Hawk to get him a ride if he won the main event and now the stock car world is clamoring for the Indy 500 winner to move toward their side of the fence.

Would Trackhouse Racing take on Castroneves? It’s certainly possible, as their new third team is built around giving international drivers a chance in Cup.

A different Bubba comes oh-so-close

No, I’m not talking about Bubba Wallace. Bubba Pollard, a 31-time winner at Five Flags Speedway, was chosen as the local ringer for this event. After drawing the pole, Pollard won Heat 1, leading a race-high 21 laps, then gained more spots than any driver in the field in Heat 2 (+6 after starting the race in 13th position).

Pollard’s average finish put him on pole for the main event, a race he stayed in contention for until a flat left rear tire near the halfway point. Trapped in traffic, he still made a race of it, gaining nine spots in one 25-lap stretch until he ran out of time and was forced to settle for second.

“Yeah, that flat tire killed us,” he said after the race. “That got us behind, really. Those guys, once you got back in the field there…they were hard to pass.”

It was still an outstanding effort for the local driver, perhaps the best since Doug Coby won at Stafford Motor Speedway last year. Coby wound up with a one-race Camping World Truck Series deal for his efforts; could the same audition be coming Pollard’s way?

Sophomore slump

Ernie Francis, Jr. is running just a limited schedule in SRX this season and needs to make the most of his opportunities. It didn’t happen Saturday night, as contact with Castroneves ruined Heat 1 before Francis was forced into a backup car for the main event.

“Something broke in the front steering rack, I think,” Francis explained. “And the right-rear tire had something wrong with it. Tough [going to a backup car]… it didn’t have my seat in it, so I’m kind of flopping all over the place just trying to hold on to it.”

Francis was hoping for some momentum after a tough rookie year in Indy Lights (his average finish is 9.0 through seven starts).

Tony Troubles

In 18 total SRX races last year (including heats), Stewart collected 16 top-5 finishes. His worst result was seventh, as it felt like the SRX co-owner was never seriously challenged for the championship.

Well, 2022 already feels like a different story. Stewart never led a lap at Five Flags after posting a SRX-high 131 lap led last year. He finished third, eighth and a career-worst 10th to start the year in an unfamiliar spot: 19 points behind the championship lead.

Chances are, this schedule plays into Stewart’s hands the longer we go (the last two races are held on dirt, his strong suit). But it certainly looks like newcomers like Ryan Newman (third at Five Flags) along with Labonte, Hunter-Reay and others can give this NASCAR Hall of Famer a run for his money.

How about Five Flags?

The buzz heading into this race surrounded two things: the heat and whether these SRX cars could pass on a half-mile oval that struggled to break in a second groove.

The heat wound up being challenging for everyone.

“It was just plain hot,” Newman said. “Florida Everglades Hot.”

But in the end, it didn’t affect the racing as all 13 drivers made it through unscathed. That’s not an easy task on a night several in attendance suffered from heat stroke, let alone a SRX roster than includes a Bill Elliott, who is 66.

The unexpected surprise was how much the cars were able to race side by side here. There was constant action throughout the field, very few moments where the 13 cars were strung out during a night where track conditions were slick and treacherous. People were able to drive up (or slide back) through the field at will, a major selling point for a series that looks to put skill back in the driver’s hands.

“We put on a fun show for everybody,” said Michael Waltrip – after finishing dead last! “There was a lot of beating and banging and everybody pretty much kept the cars going straight… that’s what it’s all about.”

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