AP National Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Helio Castroneves can stop looking back now.
He's gone from accused to acquitted.
He's gone from a courthouse to Victory Lane -- at the Indianapolis 500, no less.
It's time for No. 3 to start working on No. 4.
Castroneves joined a very exclusive club Sunday by winning at the Brickyard for the third time, matching his car number and capping what was essentially a perfect month for a driver who could've lost it all. He's just one win away from cracking the most elite group of all: four-time Indy winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Before Castroneves is done, he might just zoom by all of them.
"You can't be thinking five without making three," Castroneves said. "We just made three and now we're thinking about the fourth. I will think about it, dream about it, but we've got to work for it. Certainly we have the team to do that, but we have a long way to go."
This victory was especially poignant given what he was facing last month, a federal tax evasion trial that came with a possible six-year sentence and likely would have ended his racing career. But the jury acquitted him on most changes, and the remaining count was finally thrown out last Friday.
"This is the best month of May ever," Castroneves said, and it was hard to argue otherwise.
He won the pole. Then he won the pit-stop competition. Finally, the biggest win of all. Considering what he'd been through, it wasn't surprising that Castroneves broke down in tears when he pulled into Victory Lane. And he really got emotional when Penske leaned over to give him a hug.
"Thanks for giving my life back," Castroneves said between sobs.
Penske never lost faith in his driver, promising that his car would be waiting when his legal problems were resolved. After missing the season-opening race, Castroneves was acquitted by a jury on April 17 and immediately hopped on a plane for an event at Long Beach, Calif.
"I had so much faith that Helio hadn't done anything wrong," Penske said. "We were never, ever going to leave his side."
Castroneves is one of the most personable, fun-loving drivers in open-wheel racing. He's known as "Spiderman" for the fence-climbing celebration he does after wins, and he branched out to a whole new group of fans when he won TV's "Dancing with the Stars" in 2007.
Behind the wheel, though, he's all business.
"Outside, he has that personality," Penske said. "But inside, he's as tough as nails. He had to be to go through what he went through the last six months."
For Penske, it was Indy win No. 15 -- more than any other car owner and ensuring that the Captain has never gone more than three years between wins at this place, except for the time he didn't run because of a split in open-wheel racing.
"He smiles only two times: on his birthday and when he wins the Indy 500," Castroneves quipped.
The winner 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 -- the highest finish ever for a female driver.
Patrick, however, was never really a factor on this day. It belonged to Castroneves, who pumped his fist all the way down the final straightaway.
"I want to climb the fence," he said over his radio. 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. Someone tossed him a green-and-yellow Brazilian flag.
It was clearly a popular victory. The quarter of a million fans who turned out on a sweltering late spring day were on their feet, cheering and waving their caps as Castroneves sped around the 2.5-mile oval for the final time.
"You guys kept me strong," Castroneves told the crowd. "You guys are the best. I'm honored to have fans like you.
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, then rolled down the wall on its side before falling back onto the track. He was put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital complaining of severe lower-back pain, which turned out to be two broken vertebrae. IndyCar officials said the injury should be treatable without surgery, but Meira will be in the hospital for at least two days.
The lengthy caution period after the Meira-Matos crash 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, more than two football fields.
"At the end, I just didn't have enough for Helio," said Wheldon, who won the race in 2005.
The winning speed was 150.318 mph in a race that had very little passing up front and only four leaders: Castroneves and Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe, along with the last two winners, Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
Dixon, the defending champion, led more laps than anyone (73), and 2007 winner Franchitti, returning to Indy after a disappointing foray into stock cars, was out front for 50. Castroneves led 66 and Briscoe the other 11.
Castroneves started from the pole and led the first seven laps, then laid back for a good part of the afternoon. Finally, on a restart after the sixth of eight yellow flags, Castroneves surged past Dixon to reclaim the lead with 59 laps to go.
It was his the rest of the way.
"I'm very happy for him," Patrick said. "I'm glad to have him back, and obviously he's great for the sport."
Dixon was delayed getting a tire changed with 39 laps to go and slipped back to sixth, failing to become the first driver since Castroneves in 2001-02 to win back-to-back 500s. Franchitti also got held up on pit road late when he tried to pull away with the fuel hose still attached; he settled for seventh.
Two drivers who don't even have full-time rides in the IndyCar series crossed the line behind Patrick. Townsend Bell was fourth, while Will Power -- who filled in while Castroneves was on trial -- finished fifth in a third Team Penske car.
It may have been a perfect month for Castroneves, but it wasn't a perfect race. He had problems with his radio all day, and there were gearbox issues when he came into the pits. But he knew what to do on the track.
"Once I got in the front, it was, 'Never look back,"' Castroneves said.
Now, it's time to look forward.