Power Takes His Title Fight To Motegi

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 17 2010

Will Power will take to another oval this weekend as the IZOD IndyCar Series is in Motegi, Japan. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Motegi, Japan – If Will Power secures the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series driver’s championship without ever winning on an oval, he will do so sans apology.

“If I win the championship, I won’t let that bother me at all. Not one bit,” Power said in the paddock at Twin Ring Motegi, site of Sunday’s Indy Japan 300. “If I win this championship, it’ll be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Absolutely. I’m telling you, it would be the biggest moment in my life and career to win this championship. It would be…unbelievable.”

Armed with a 17-point lead (552-535) over two-time/reigning series champion Dario Franchitti, Power is on the cusp of his first big-time racing title in what has been a remarkable comeback/breakthrough campaign. In his first full season with Team Penske, Power has notched a series-record eight poles and five victories, all on street and/or road-courses.

Sunday’s scheduled 200-lap/300-miler is the third of a four-race run on 1.5-mile layouts that have seen Power’s lead over Franchitti shrink from 59 points to 17. The season-finale will be played out on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 2, a venue that on paper also favors Franchitti and Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Power never has won on an oval during his IndyCar career – he is 0-for-20 overall, including 0-for-6 this season. And while that fact does not faze him, it admittedly has the soft-spoken native Australian counting points.

“Well, I think, yes, you have to at this point because if you’re going on points you’ve got to win,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. “It’s actually got down to such a number now where you stop thinking about it and you just have to, yes, finish ahead of him. If I finish second to his first, it’s basically dead-even to the last race.

“But when I get in the car, I’m just racing. Just been doing what I’ve been doing all year. You’re not thinking about the points. The team will kind of remind me on the radio if we’re in a certain position ‘…and remember who you’re racing.’ ”

In addition to Power and Franchitti, former two-time series champion Scott Dixon (469 points) of the Ganassi camp and Penske’s Helio Castroneves (448 points) remain mathematically eligible for the title. Castroneves has a victory and three poles in seven starts at TRM and Dixon has four top-five results, including a win from pole one year ago.

Cleary, however, Power is fixated on Franchitti. The Scotsman earned his titles in 2007 and 2009 in dramatic fashion, besting Dixon in the last turn of the last lap of the 2007 finale at Chicagoland Speedway and outlasting Dixon and Penske’s Ryan Briscoe in the 2009 finale at Homestead-Miami.

“Dario is a very mistake-free, fast driver,” said Power, 29. “And he’s very experienced. He knows how to win championships. He knows how to win races. I’ve just got to be a little bit better than that.”

Franchitti’s 17-point deficit marks the third-closest title chase with two events left in the past five years. And Dario is eight points closer to the lead than he was one year ago, when he chased down Briscoe to win it. Franchitti has finished second and third the past two years at TRM, and has compiled an average result of eighth through five races here.

“It’s far from over on both sides,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Dallara/Honda. “It’s going to be interesting.”

Late fuel stops in back-to-back Saturday night races at Chicagoland Speedway on Aug. 28 and at Kentucky Speedway on Sept. 4 turned a yawner of a championship into this burner.

Franchitti and his Target team used a clever bit of strategy to win the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 in Joliet, Ill. Franchitti scrambled into the lead during the night’s final pit stop on Lap 173 by taking only fuel while relying on a double stint from his Firestone Firehawk tires covering 62 laps. Dario gained eight spots during the stop and then held off Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon by 0.0423-seconds for his third win of the season.

Meanwhile, Power’s normally efficient Penske crew experienced a fueling equipment issue on the same stop, forcing him to duck onto pit lane with five laps remaining for a splash of ethanol. He was running fourth at the time but finished a season-low 16th.

Power began the race with that 59-point cushion over Franchitti but saw it shrink to 23 heading to Sparta, Ken. Castroneves rebounded from an early-race pit stop error to emerge with a 13.1597-second victory in the Kentucky Indy 300 over pole-sitter Ed Carpenter. Helio mometarily overshadowed the title chase storyline by feathering the throttle on his No. 3 Team Penske Dallara/Honda over the final 53 of 200 laps after remaining on-track as the five drivers in front of him cycled into the pits for splashes of fuel from Laps 192-197.

Power completed his final stop for four tires and fuel on Lap 142, and then nearly threw his night away by running high and close to the wall in Turn 4 en route to an eighth-place finish – three spots behind Franchitti.

“We’ve certainly taken a big hit in the last two races on points,” said Power, who clinched the inaugural Mario Andretti Road Championship at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 8 with a second-place finish to – who else? – Franchitti. “Chicagoland, man, that was unfortunate. But that’s motorsport, you have your good and bad races. And it’s a team sport, you win and lose as a team.”

Asked if Franchitti had gotten into his head since Chicagoland, Power smiled. “Well, he certainly hasn’t got into my head considering that at Chicagoland, we were looking good to win that thing and he looked like he was in a bit of trouble,” Power said. “Kentucky was just a similar result actually. I mean, I led plenty of laps there (73 of 200). But that out-lap (from the pits) cost me, and I think I could have been a little bit more aggressive at the end. But you know, don’t want to throw it in the wall.

“No, I wasn’t happy after that race because, God, I could kick myself for that out-lap. I just got going to the outside so I must have got into oil or something. That’s what set me back at the end there. It took me such by surprise to sort of head straight for the wall. It was on cold tires, but it was actually the second lap. And usually by then the tires, especially new tires, work reasonably well. But it can still catch you out because it was an ‘out.’

“I was, actually, shocked by the way it caught me out. I didn’t expect it.  I had run up there pretty early in the night and it wasn’t a problem. (A crash) wouldn’t have been the season, but it would have evened things right up. We’ve still taken a big points hit.”

Power has, however, taken and rebounded from bigger career hits. In August 2009, his part-time job for open-wheel mogul Roger Penske came to an abrupt halt when he slammed into the side of the stalled car of series rookie Nelson Philippe during practice at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Power suffered compression fractures in his back, and spent plenty of hospital sheet time pondering if he had a future.

“After the accident, yes, I was very anxious and wasn’t sure…will I be as good? Has this made me less-confident?” Power said. “I didn’t think Roger would drop me but I just feared that this could be the beginning of the end. There definitely was some of that doubt in my mind, and that went away pretty quickly after the first couple of races. All I could think about was getting better, and to get back in the car.”

Rewarded by “The Captain” with a fulltime ride, Power has logged only three results outside the top-10 during the season’s first 15 races.

“He’s just got to keep his cool and be focused, which he is,” teammate Briscoe said of Power and his debut Saturday on the egg-shaped TRM oval. “He’s up for the challenge.

“I think it’s especially impressive how he’s dominated on road and street courses this year. He’s just done a really good job and gelled with his engineer, Dave (Faustino), who’s also new on the team. They’ve turned it on and come through with the results. Will recovered well from his accident; he trained really hard over the whole offseason and made sure he was going to be up to scratch from the first race, which he absolutely was.”

Power’s will to win has created a good vibe among his peers, where he has emerged as an unlikely – albeit genuinely likable – star since launching his IndyCar career with KV Racing Technology in 2008. “It shows what a talent he is and the kind of focus he has to be able to come back after last year,” said Danica Patrick of Andretti Autosport. “I’m sure he’ll have a job for many years to come.”

For his part, Power pointed out that Saturday’s two, one-hour practices and mid-afternoon qualifying session will be crucial to a season that has been nothing short of mercurial.

“I definitely expected to be a championship contender, considering my pace last year,” Power said. “And maybe I expected more guys to be up there fighting for the championship. I thought it was going to be a tighter battle as far as points toward the end. It’s been a great year for me, but I think I would have been disappointed if it wasn’t…and if I hadn’t won a couple of races.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 17 2010
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