Twenty-two drivers started the race, but the story of Saturday night's SunTrust Indy Challenge really was about only two of them: Helio Castroneves and fan favorite Danica Patrick.

Castroneves had the fastest car and wasted little time proving it. He led the final 100 laps and collected his first victory of the season in front of a record crowd for an IndyCar race at Richmond International Raceway.

"We've been so close so many times here," said Castroneves, who was third here last year and second in 2003. "I just tried to keep my composure and be patient. This place is like a go-kart track it's so fast and challenging and so difficult."

Dario Franchitti finished second, .5588 of a second behind Castroneves. Patrick Carpentier was third and Indy Racing League series points leader Dan Wheldon drove a conservative race and finished fifth.

Just as impressive as Castroneves's dominating drive was the effect Patrick's skyrocketing popularity appeared to have on the crowd size. The "Danica factor," as it's called by racing officials, was credited for boosting attendance to an estimated 55,000, which was a record for the IRL at Richmond and about a 10 percent increase over last year.

The track opened four additional sections of bleachers to accommodate the larger-than-anticipated number of walk-up ticket buyers.

Patrick finished 10th, not a bad showing for a rookie driving for the first time on one of the IRL's most demanding tracks. She had been the slowest driver in practice on Friday and qualified on the last row, nearly 12 mph off pole sitter Sam Hornish Jr.'s pace.

"It was tough to be behind people and not be able to do anything about it," Patrick said. "This place could be fun [in the future] if we get the car set up for traffic. As a team we had a lot of work to do this weekend.

"Of course, this kind of racing is much different than other things I have driven. But I am still learning, and we'll go to Kansas [next week] and I think we'll have a good setup for that track."

Although the race was largely dominated by Castroneves, it featured enough daring passes -- and near misses -- to keep the fans on the edge of their seats.

Castroneves took the checkered flag in his Dallara/Toyota, then did his signature move -- he climbed the chain-link fence at the start/finish line and pumped his fist at the cheering crowd, the move that has earned him the nickname "Spiderman."

But moments before his victory celebration, the Brazilian had to slip past the two spinning cars that had just collided in front of him on Lap 241 of 250. He missed Roger Yasukawa's spinning car by mere inches.

"When I went past [the crash], I thought this was my race, I was like, 'Woo hoo!' Nothing more could happen to me," he said. "Now we just have to bring it home."

It took eight laps to clean up the crash between Yasukawa and Darren Manning, leaving only one lap to go when the green flag waved for the final time. Castroneves, as he had done all night, pulled away from the field for the win.

Making the triumph sweeter for Castroneves was that it came a week after he suffered a bruised shoulder in a hard practice crash here.

"It's sad that happened, but at least it happened on a day when it didn't cost us points," said Castroneves, who started second.

Attendance wasn't the only record set Saturday -- the race was also the fastest yet. Twelve cars smashed the track record during Friday's qualifying session as the drivers pushed their cars to the edge. Hornish Jr. said he went maybe "a little bit past" it.

Perhaps that is why so many of the series' fastest drivers took turns crashing out of the race.

Scott Dixon, the 2003 winner, crashed out on Lap 39 after rubbing tires with Franchitti. Tony Kanaan, who came to Richmond second in the point standings, tangled with Vitor Meira on Lap 146, ending both drivers' days. Meira led 40 laps and Kanaan's streak of 25 consecutive finishes ended.

Hornish backed his car into the wall on Lap 165. He was in second place and pursuing his teammate, Castroneves, when he appeared to lose downforce. Then on Lap 201, Scott Sharp also was forced to the garage after smacking the wall while running fourth.

Asked if he thought the cars need to be slowed down, Castroneves said: "I do think so. Nobody got hurt. I think it was an exciting race. If it was good, why change anything?"

Helio Castroneves climbs the fence after winning the SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway.