By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Helio Castroneves has a Team Penske IndyCar waiting for him whenever he puts his legal problems behind him.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and last year's IndyCar Series runner-up is on trial in Miami on federal tax evasion charges that carry a potential of more than six years behind bars.
But team owner Roger Penske, who has replaced the Brazilian, at least temporarily, with Aussie Will Power, is hopeful Castroneves will be back racing soon.
"If he doesn't have any issue coming out of this, he'll be in a car in (two weeks in) Long Beach," Penske said Saturday in St. Petersburg, where the IndyCar season opens Sunday with the Honda Grand Prix. "If he'd have been done (with the trial) Thursday of this week, we'd have put him in a car here on Friday. We've never backed off a minute.
"We certainly understand the concerns everybody has for him. We're hoping the jury sees he's not a culprit in this situation."
Penske has kept in touch with Castroneves during the trial and said that the driver told him the case could go to jury next week.
Power, along with teammate Ryan Briscoe, qualified among the top six for the season-opener.
Asked what would happen to Power if Castroneves returns, Penske said the Aussie could run in a third car.
"The bottom (line) is there's so many decisions that ride on what happens to Helio," Penske said.
For the first time in IndyCar Series history teams will have the choice of tire compounds in Sunday's race.
They can run on black-sidewalled primary tires or softer alternate red-sidewalled Firestone rubber that may or may not give the car more grip.
The choices actually started in qualifying on Saturday.
"It was fun to see a lot of people trying to play different strategies on the tires," said Tony Kanaan, who qualified third in the 22-car field. "It mean, it was really tough."
The teams had to save one of their three sets of alternates for the race. But there were plenty of different strategies used with the other two sets on Saturday.
In the knockout-style IndyCar qualifying drivers are eliminated in each of the first two sessions before they fight it out for the pole in the Firestone Final Six.
Graham Rahal won his first IndyCar pole, followed by Justin Wilson, Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti and Will Power.
"We didn't use the reds in the first session," Franchitti said. "That was a gamble to try and give us an advantage if we made it to the Fast Six. There were a couple of nervous minutes there at the end of the first 20-minute period when everybody was going so much quicker on reds. But our time held up."
Power, making his first start for Team Penske, had experience with alternate tires in the now-defunct Champ Car series. The Aussie said Sunday's strategy should be very interesting for the drivers and teams, as well as fans.
"It can be a bit of trial and error because we haven't run these reds before in a race," Power said. "... I remember in Champ Car a couple of times when people put reds on at the wrong time and they went backward real quick."
Kanaan echoed Power, noting, "We run on blacks most of the weekends. You put a different tire on, it might change the attitude of the car a lot. That can actually benefit some people (or) put some people back. I felt that in (the first qualifying session). I went three-tenths (of a second) slower with the reds. I said, 'Just throw them away. I don't want them."
Kanaan and the rest of the drivers will have to race on the alternates sometime Sunday. The rules require each car to run at least two green flag laps on the reds.
Another new factor is that each team had to decide within one hour after qualifying whether it will start the race on blacks or reds.
Six drivers, including reigning series champion Scott Dixon, who starts eighth, Target Chip Ganassi teammate Franchitti and Kanaan will start the race on blacks, while the other 16 drivers, including front row starters Rahal and Wilson will start on reds.
Versus, owned by Comcast Corp. and reaching about 74 million homes through cable and satellite, will broadcast its first IndyCar race Sunday, scheduling three hours for the race that is expected to take about two hours.
"One of our goals, especially with the three-hour window, is to really bring out more of the personalities of the drivers, have a little bit more fun with the telecast, but also dig in more on the strategy," said Marc Fein, executive vice president of programming, production and business operations.
The race will be covered with 21 camera locations, as well as six in-car cameras and a helicopter.
Veteran announcer Bob Jenkins, former driver Jon Beekhuis and former driver and current team co-owner Robbie Buhl will be in the booth, while longtime pit reporter Jack Arute will be joined on pit road by Robbie Floyd and Lindy Thackston.
Versus will air 12 live IndyCar Series events this season, with the other five, including the Indianapolis 500, on ABC.