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Monday, August 29, 2011
Will Power rights ship at Sonoma

By John Oreovicz
ESPN.com

Nobody likes a boring race -- except the winner.

And in this case, an entire racing series.

Will Power's victory Sunday in the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway wasn't a spellbinder that put you on the edge of your seat. But it was exactly what the Australian -- and the Izod IndyCar Series as a whole -- needed after a tumultuous summer on and off the track.

The 2011 IndyCar season has been full of clashes and controversy, and Power has often been at the center of the action.

His frustration boiled over two weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in an outburst that cost him a $30,000 fine. The finish of the New Hampshire race also pointed renewed scrutiny at INDYCAR's officiating and race operations group.

By cruising to a relatively unchallenged victory in a distinctly undramatic race, Power put the focus back on the IndyCar Series championship battle. He's now 26 points behind two-time defending titlist Dario Franchitti, having cut the deficit from 62 points after the Mid-Ohio round Aug. 7.

Scott Dixon is third in the standings, 75 points behind Ganassi Racing teammate Franchitti.

Power led 71 of 75 laps at Infineon, and bested Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe in the first 1-2-3 finish for Team Penske since 1994, when the drivers were Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy.

Castroneves/Briscoe/Power
Will Power, center, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe recorded the first 1-2-3 finish for Penske Racing since 1994.

"Now we have a legitimate shot at the championship," Power said at the postrace news conference following his fifth win of the season, tops in the IndyCar series this year. "I think we're 26 points out, and two more road courses, two more ovals -- we can get this.

"Great momentum, and I'm just really happy for just the team effort overall," he added. "To have a 1-2-3 is something we've been working hard toward for the last two years, and we finally got it."

Briscoe and Castroneves haven't had stellar seasons, and neither man is in championship contention. But they stepped up in a big way as teammates at Sonoma in terms of supporting Power's bid for the title.

By relegating Franchitti to fourth place in Sunday's race, they took eight points from the Target Ganassi Racing pilot. The IndyCar crown has been decided by 17 points or fewer for the past five years.

Power has been at his best on natural terrain road courses, but he was curiously off the pace at Mid-Ohio. At Infineon, all three Penske cars were slightly quicker than their rivals at Ganassi, as Franchitti and Dixon finished fourth and fifth.

"It's invaluable to have [Castroneves and Briscoe] performing at the top level, taking points away from Dario," Power said. "I expect them to be the same the next four races now that we've got a bit of momentum and we understand what we want from the car. I'm hoping that this is going to be the case every weekend."

While Castroneves occasionally looked like he was ready to challenge Power for the lead, Briscoe functioned perfectly as the wing man by controlling the pace ahead of Franchitti and Dixon.

"My focus was just to hold off Dario and bring home this 1-2-3, especially on that last restart," Briscoe said. "There was no point in trying to risk anything to make a position. It's such a milestone for this team to get this 1-2-3. We performed well all weekend long. We started 1-2-3, we finished that way and it's a long time coming."

Last year, Franchitti entered the last four races of the season 59 points behind Power, but having all four on oval tracks played into his favor and he eventually came away triumphant from the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Three of the remaining four races in this year's campaign are on tracks new to the IndyCar Series -- the Baltimore street course, the Twin Ring Motegi road course in Japan and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, site of the Oct. 16 season finale.

Kentucky Speedway is the only carryover track, and that has not been a particularly successful venue for Franchitti or the Ganassi team.

Power knows that 26 points can be made up or lost very quickly. And so does Franchitti.

"You can only do your best," Franchitti said. "That's the same attitude I take every championship I've done. There's going to be days like this and hopefully days where we have the upper hand. There's no more pressure. Ultimately it is what it is and you have to deal with it.

"The only way to deal with it is to go out and try to win the weekend after that. The Penske guys found something. All three of their teams did a great job all weekend. And we've got some work to do."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.