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Penske’s Power Poised For First Championship

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 2 2010

Will Power will start tonight's season-ending IZOD IndyCar Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a slim lead over Dario Franchitti. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

The month-long drip, drip, drip-and-drain of Will Power’s IZOD IndyCar Series points lead continued Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where championship runner-up Dario Franchitti added a bonus point for winning the pole for tonight’s Cafes do Brasil Indy 300.

Power’s lead that stood at a comfortable 59 points prior to the PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on Aug. 28 has been trimmed to a tenuous 11, a testament to Franchitti’s savvy as a two-time series champion. But Power – who began the season as Team Penske’s least-likely championship candidate – insists he is not wheeling from a position of high anxiety in South Florida.

“Actually, (I’ve) been quite relaxed,” said Power, 29, seeking his first championship during his first full season of driving for open-wheel icon Roger Penske.  “I remember the race in Japan (Sept. 19), I said to Roger, ‘I feel very kind of relaxed about the whole thing.’ ”

Power went into the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi with a 17-point lead over Franchitti. Power’s third-place finish – part of a Penske 1-2-3 sweep featuring race-winner Helio Castroneves and runnerup Ryan Briscoe – left him 12 points ahead of fourth-place Franchitti heading into the season-finale.

Power emerged as the series’ street/road-course ace with five victories this season, but has yet to visit Victory Lane at an oval. His third-place run at Twin Ring Motegi was Power’s best result during a three-race stretch on varied 1.5-mile ovals that included finishes of 16th at Chicagoland Speedway and eighth at Kentucky Speedway.

“Yeah, I mean the thing is in all those races we’ve been at the front,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Honda. “I led at Chicagoland (17 of 199 laps completed).  I led at Kentucky (73 of 200).  Been there, it just hasn’t worked out.  The anxiety level, I’m actually

Will Power looks for first championship.

quite relaxed.  I think when it comes down to it, comes to the race, I’m very focused on what I want to do and if it comes time to be very aggressive, I will.  If not, I’ll just race my normal race.  I’ll be aware of exactly what I have to do on the weekend.”

Ironically, Power watched the 2009 IndyCar championship-deciding race from a suite at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Franchitti’s title-clinching victory served as a 90-minute inspirational video for the native Australian, who was recovering from a back injury suffered in a crash at Infineon Raceway.

Tonight, Power will start directly behind Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, as the Scotsman bids to tie Sam Hornish Jr.’s record of three series championships. Power recorded the third-fastest two-lap qualifying run on Friday at 212.580 mph. Franchitti’s pole-winning effort of 213.187 mph in the No. 10 Dallara/Honda earned him that precious bonus point.

There are a number of scenarios by which Power can clinch _ foremost by finishing ahead of his lone title competitor in the field of 27. Basically, Power needs to finish in front of Franchitti or at least stay within one position of his rival at the end of the race – unless Franchitti wins and scores another two bonus points for leading the most laps.

Power’s 587 points have been amassed through those five victories and top-10 finishes in 13 of 16 races. He also has accrued 29 bonus points from a series-record eight poles and race laps-led.

“If I go back to the end of 2008, it’s amazing the position I’m in right now,” said Power, who drove for KV Racing Technology as a series rookie in ‘08. “This is what I’ve been working for the last 10 years of my career, which in 2000 I decided I wanted to be a race driver at a high level and get as far as I can. At this point, to win a championship in a major series has been the goal.”

Recall that Power originally was hired by Team Penske prior to the 2009 season as Castroneves’ trial on federal income tax evasion charges put the Brazilian’s career in jeopardy. When Castroneves was acquitted in mid-April ‘09, Power competed in an abbreviated six-race schedule compounded by his wreck and back injury at Infineon Raceway.

“It’s interesting. Will – from the minute we sat down and talked to him about filling in for Helio, back at the beginning of 2009 – he was adamant that he felt like he could win this championship,” said Tim Cindric, Team Penske president. “He continued to say, ‘I know I can compete for this championship.  I know I can get there, I just need the chance.’ And that’s continued to be really the thing, that he’s been very consistent in his belief.

“And it wasn’t as much as ‘I can win races’ or ‘I’m fast enough.’  In his head, it’s always been about trying to be a champion.  And to see it, I guess, so early in our relationship, I can’t say that I would have expected him to be in this position. In his first full season with us, would I have said that?  I guess I would have probably said I wouldn’t have expected him to be leading the championship. But obviously, I think we felt like he was a championship contender or we wouldn’t have had much interest in fielding a third car.”

Despite Power’s eroding lead, Cindric said Will has continued to build his confidence level on ovals down the stretch. “You know, to go wheel-to-wheel with the guys,” Cindric said, “because in the past maybe he hasn’t been as comfortable on the ovals for one reason or another.

“And he’s continued to really be a student of the sport in a lot of ways, to understand that it’s a lot different to run in that top-five than it is to just finish in the top-10. And really, it’s a matter of putting the details together.  And he’s shown that he’s capable.  It’s just a matter of doing it now.”

For sure, Power is anxious to add that first oval win to his resume, putting an end to that bothersome inquiry. “But it’s been a process of getting experience without taking too big of a risk and trying to win a championship at the same time,” Power said. “I feel like I’ve got all that this year and now am in a position to do that. If I don’t win the race this weekend, it doesn’t mean anything to me. The championship is the one thing I want to win.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 2 2010
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