SPARTA — As Helio Castroneves emerged from his No. 3 Penske Dallara/Honda Saturday evening, he flung his hands in the air, dropped his head in dismay and exclaimed to all within earshot, “What do I do?”
One turn was all that separated the two-time Indy 500 champion from ending his season-long winless streak. One corner was all he had to navigate to finally gain an advantage over his unshakable nemesis this year.
In an effort to keep his championship hopes alive, Castroneves knew he had to try something desperate.
But as has been the case repeatedly for Castroneves this season, his rival Scott Dixon managed to do him one better.
A crowd of 66,389 at Kentucky Speedway got to witness the expertise Dixon has shown for much of the 2008 IndyCar Series season. The series points leader led for much of the race, and then passed Castroneves on the final turn of the last lap when Castroneves ran out of gas.
Dixon, with his record-tying sixth win of the year, now holds a 78-point lead over Castroneves in the standings. Dixon would have to lose a minimum of 26 points to his rival over the final three points races in order to lose the championship.
With a car that was lacking in speed and an empty win column in 2008, Castroneves and his crew opted to try to stretch their fuel over the final 57 laps, knowing the rest of the leaders needed to pit.
Although the gamble put Castroneves in front of Dixon — who had the dominant car of the night — with just six laps to go, Dixon ate into the six-second deficit as Castroneves tried to milk enough fuel to get him to the finish line.
The conservation effort came up short when Castroneves' car sputtered coming out of Turn 4, clearing the way for Dixon's third win in his last four races and Castroneves' seventh runner-up effort on the year.
“We took a chance, I can't believe how close we were,” Castroneves said. “We didn't have the car to be competitive with those guys, but I tried everything. The team tried everything.
“Coming out of Turn 3 I was like ‘Finally, I'm going to win a race,' and then coming out of Turn 4, my thoughts definitely changed. Second seems to be my thing this year.”
Just as he has boasted the most outstanding car all year, Dixon was tearing up the Sparta tri-oval from the moment his Target Chip Ganassi team unloaded this week.
After leading both practices and winning the pole on Friday, Dixon led 151 of 200 laps Saturday evening with only third-place finisher Marco Andretti able to seriously threaten him.
“I think when it's your year things just seem to go your way,” said Dixon, who won the IndyCar title in 2003. “We maybe didn't have the best strategy and guys like Penske and Helio pulled a big one there and had us definitely surprised.
“You know, obviously, with a 78-point lead now, I think it's pretty healthy, but as you can see tonight, anything can happen.”
The final 100 laps looked as if it would be a two-car dogfight between Dixon and Andretti. The youngster was all over the leader's bumper throughout and even passed him on a few occasions to lead 38 laps.
Andretti got shuffled back slightly when he came in for his final pit with 11 laps to go and never got the chance to make another run.
“Obviously we've got to be happy with the third; especially with the season we've had, we'll take it,” said Andretti, who earned his sixth top-5 effort of the year. “I think tonight was a night we had one of the cars to win. We tried to play traffic as best we could and ... we were able to overtake (Dixon) twice but it didn't pay off.”
Vitor Meira, who rolled off the grid in second, had a strong car all evening en route to a fourth-place finish. Dixon's teammate Dan Wheldon rounded out the top five.
A year ago, Dixon was robbed of a second series title when he ran out of gas on the final turn at Chicagoland, giving the championship to Dario Franchitti.
Thanks to a bit of role reversal Saturday, the New Zealand native might head into this year's finale with the coveted crown already sewn up.
“I spoke with Dario on the phone, and I said ‘That view is pretty sweet' coming through turn three and turn four and seeing Helio run out of gas,” Dixon joked. “It's been a strong year for myself and the team, but it's what we knew we had to do to win.”