Will Power the title favorite? Again?
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Will Power? He's suddenly the sport's forgotten man.
Most drivers would say that finishing fourth in the IndyCar championship with three race wins would represent a pretty decent season.
For Power, who posted those numbers in 2013, it's pretty much forgettable. And here's why: The Team Penske driver from Toowoomba, Australia, entered the 2013 campaign as a strong favorite to claim the IndyCar crown. Power had finished second in the championship three years running, losing out each time in heartbreaking fashion in the final round.
But things got worse before they got better for the man from Down Under. Power's season got off to a very rocky start, with finishes of 16th or worse in five of the first seven races. By the time the series left Detroit at the beginning of June, he was 15th in the points chase and out of championship contention.[+] EnlargeJeff Gross/Getty ImagesWill Power picked up three race wins in 2013 but none more memorable than his landmark oval victory in the finale at Fontana.
To the surprise of some, it was in the stretch of the next four oval races that Power began to rebound. A victory eluded him -- that wouldn't come until the Grand Prix of Sonoma in August, ending a 15-month winless streak -- but pole position at Iowa Speedway and three finishes of seventh or better righted the ship and put Power and the No. 12 Verizon Wireless team in position to end the year strongly.
There was controversy, to be sure -- gamesmanship by one of Power's crew members during that victorious run at Sonoma created widespread anger, and the Penske driver accidentally took out his Ganassi Racing rival (and eventual IndyCar Series champion) Dixon at Baltimore. Yet all the frustration of the past four years seemed to melt away when Power led 103 of 250 laps in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway to claim his first full-length oval race win.
After losing three consecutive potential titles on ovals, the last in spectacular fashion with an unforced error that led to a crash, that victory at Fontana was bigger than anyone besides Power could imagine.
"After what happened in 2012, I had that race in my mind all year," he said. "I had the ovals especially in mind, to do a very good, solid job. And that's exactly what happened. I didn't picture myself in Victory Circle. I just went about my business very methodically. My aim for the ovals was to finish every one and just build confidence.
"This year I got maximum experience and finished every single lap on the ovals. I got what I needed to get and it worked out."
Despite the last-race misfortune that hung over him like a storm cloud three years running, Power's attitude never wavered. If anything, the poor start to his 2013 campaign showed him the value of relaxing and not worrying himself into a frenzy.
"I knew there were reasons, that it wasn't down to me making a mistake," he said. "We just had some bad incidents happen, such as getting run over on a yellow, getting hit in the pits, engine failure at Brazil. And then a few other things to go along with it.
"It would have been easy to get down, and I kept wondering, 'When am I going to finish a season in a good way?'" he said. "When I won at Fontana, I thought, 'Why is this happening one or two years late?' But that's life. You keep learning. It made me a stronger driver -- much stronger, honestly. It was actually a good year for finding my weaknesses."
Power is going to need that confidence boost, because a formidable new rival has joined the Penske lineup for 2014. Montoya was the class of the CART-sanctioned field during his two years racing Indy cars in 1999 and 2000, and Power realizes he will need to raise his game again.
"Juan was obviously a very, very good driver when he came into INDYCAR, or CART, as it was," Power said. "You don't win races in Formula One and poles in F1 and races in the CART Series on your first try if you're slow.
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"I love it when high‑profile drivers come into the series," he said. "It's very good for INDYCAR and it's cool to compete against those types of guys. I've been wanting someone like that to go up against and see where I'm at. To me it's great, because when I was younger, he was one of the guys I looked at as the best when I was trying to get to that level."
Power shook down a car for Montoya's first Penske Indy car test at Sebring International Raceway, and came away impressed with what he saw from his new teammate.
"It was exactly what I expected him to do when he got in the car; I didn't expect anything less," Power said. "He has a lot of experience from F1, CART and even ovals from NASCAR. I actually expect to learn from him. He's already brought some good ideas to the team even before he got in the car, and just from what I see from the data, he has a very similar style to me in the way he brakes and everything. That should be good as far as our setups.
"I know he's going to be bloody quick, and with quick teammates, that raises the bar. You just learn from each other."
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric is expecting big things from the teaming of Power, Montoya and Castroneves, who led much of the 2013 IndyCar Series championship before faltering in the final three races.
A Team Penske driver has gone into the final race every year since 2006 with a shot at the championship, but Sam Hornish Jr.'s title in '06 is the only crown the team brought home.
"As a team, we have to figure out how to put a whole season together," Cindric said. "There hasn't been a race in the last several years that I didn't feel like we [could] win. As long as you have that, you have a good thing, but trying to understand that championship mentality is something we failed the last four, five six years. We should have half the championships from that span, but we don't.
"Maybe Juan can bring us that kind of mentality. He's learned a lot from his transition from Formula One to NASCAR. He hasn't had a successful teammate and we're going to be able to give him a gauge."
Still, especially given his three wins in the last five races, Power has to enter 2014 once again as the championship favorite.
"To win the championship, that's going to be the goal," he said. "I'm just glad we didn't finish second again in 2013, even if it seems like it was a bad year. I really enjoyed the racing because I didn't have to think about points or anything. I just raced hard. It made me realize you can race hard all the time, whether you're in the points or not."
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