INDIANAPOLIS - The tears flowed as soon as Helio Castroneves turned his red-and-white car into Victory Lane, and he really got emotional when Roger Penske leaned over to give his driver a hug.
"Thanks for giving my life back," Castroneves said between sobs.
He could`ve lost it all. He could`ve gone to prison for six years. Instead, he was celebrating another win at the Indianapolis 500.
Castroneves capped a perfect month of May by winning at the Brickyard for the third time Sunday, a triumph that was especially poignant given what he was facing just 5Â½ weeks ago.
From accused tax cheat to Indy champion - this race was a lot longer than 500 miles.
"Let`s celebrate now!" he screamed to the quarter of a million fans.
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 said of his boss.
Castroneves 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.
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," said the driver known as "Spiderman," referring to his signature celebration.
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 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. He was removed from the car, put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital complaining of severe lower-back pain. Later, IndyCar officials said he sustained two broken vertebrae in his back, but the injury should be treatable without surgery.
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 two 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 only four leaders: Castroneves and Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe, along with the last two winners, 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 overcast, sweltering 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.
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 settled for seventh after he also got held up on pit road late when he tried to pull away with the fuel hose still attached.
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, â€˜Never look back,`" Castroneves said.
Rounding out the top 10 were Ed Carpenter in eighth, Paul Tracy and Hideki Mutoh. Tracy was racing at Indy for the first time since the disputed 2002 event, when a late caution froze the field just as he was going past Castroneves. The outspoken Canadian is still convinced he won that race - his appeal was turned down - but there was no doubt about this one.