Castroneves, Power serve notice
DETROIT -- To Roger Penske, winning a Verizon IndyCar Series championship likely ranks far below a victory in the Indianapolis 500. It might even fall behind having his drivers sweep both races of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit weekends.
But while Team Penske has won 10 IndyCar championships since 1977, only two have come in the past 20 years. Sam Hornish Jr. achieved the previous one, in 2006.
So Indy will always be king, and watching Will Power and Helio Castroneves shut out the competition in an event he promoted in his adopted hometown was sweet, but there's the sense that a 21st century IndyCar championship would really mean something to Penske.
He has come close in recent years. Although he has never won a championship, Castroneves is a perennial contender, finishing fourth or higher in the standings in nine of the past 12 years. Ryan Briscoe nearly won the 2009 IndyCar title, only to lose out to a late charge by Dario Franchitti of the rival Ganassi team.
Then there's Power, who took the championship fight down to the wire three consecutive years (2010-12) but was beaten in heartbreaking fashion each time -- by Franchitti in 2010 and '11, and by Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012.
Ironically, a comparatively lousy 2013 campaign may have been what it took to turn Power into a champion. He stopped worrying about racing for points, and won two of the last three races, including a morale-boosting first full-length race win on an oval.
More important, Power carried that momentum into 2014. He won the season opener at St. Petersburg, added another win at Detroit, and hasn't finished lower than eighth in any race.
Hunter-Reay has matched Power with two race wins, and the American used the double-points bonus he received for winning the Indianapolis 500 to vault into the championship lead. But Hunter-Reay failed to finish either race at Detroit, and Power, claiming a first and a second, outscored Hunter-Reay 92-25 on Belle Isle to reclaim the top spot in the standings.
Meanwhile, by finishing fifth and first at Detroit, Castroneves scored 87 points and moved past Hunter-Reay to make it a Penske 1-2 atop the standings.
"This guy Castroneves, he's the guy, and Will did a great job to preserve the 1-2," Penske said. "With Hunter-Reay finding trouble, I said to Tim [Cindric, team president] on the intercom, 'We better not mess this up.' It was a team effort.
"From a racing standpoint, you dream of weekends where you're as strong as this," he said. "Any time you put two drivers in the winner's circle in the same weekend, it's tremendous."
Added Cindric: "To come home 1-2 in Detroit and be 1-2 in the points, it's a big day."
Now Penske and Cindric have a problem that every team wishes it had: two drivers contending for the championship. Third driver Juan Pablo Montoya -- who won the CART-sanctioned title as a rookie in 1999 -- has yet to put together a fully competitive weekend in his return to Indy cars, but ranks seventh in the standings and is capable of moving up quickly.
Seven races into the 18-race campaign, Power leads Castroneves by 19 points. Hunter-Reay is 27 points behind the championship leader, followed by Simon Pagenaud (minus-79), Marco Andretti (minus-99), Carlos Munoz (minus-116) and Montoya (minus-139).
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A 1-2-3 championship finish would match 1994, Penske's best season in IndyCar racing, when Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy won 12 of 16 races, including the Indy 500, and swept the standings.
Power insists that he will not think about points as the season wears on.
"If you look at points, I guess you could say it's a good points day," Power remarked after Sunday's second-place finish. "I don't even look at it anymore. Try to just have good days, have fun and try to win. That's all we can do in racing.
"If you want to be a points racer and feel conservative all the time, it sucks," he noted. "I've been through that three years in a row, so I'm not doing it anymore. It's just about getting solid results every weekend and trying to be mistake-free. Trying to forget about the championship in every race, just try to do your best -- that's really all you can do."
While Power, 33, is in the prime of his career, Castroneves will turn 40 next year and probably won't have as many opportunities to win the championship.
The Brazilian will always be renowned for his three Indianapolis 500 victories, but an IndyCar championship is the one thing missing from his racing résumé.
"Yeah, we are on it; we are not playing around;" he acknowledged. "I'm very confident with my team. We know what we got, especially after Indy. On ovals, we improved quite a lot. We are definitely ready and I'm already thinking about Texas (the next race), to be honest.
"I think I'm becoming wiser, I guess, with age."
Power is already convinced that the road to the 2014 IndyCar Series crown goes through his teammate.
"Yeah, he'll be there," Power said with a chuckle. "I mean, he's very consistent. He's got better in his old age. He's kind of changed his driving style, more similar to the way I drive now.
"He's just very strong," he added. "The guy has passion for winning and motorsport itself, and this sport is very tough on you. A guy like him that hasn't won a championship, who's been so close ... yeah, he'll be a contender this year. He's relentless."