Ovals key to Will Power's title run
Will Power has always insisted that he enjoys oval racing, and that he's actually pretty good at it.
The raw numbers back that up. Power won his first oval race in his 24th oval start, about half the number of attempts it took Dario Franchitti (45), and five fewer than another three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and acknowledged oval expert, Helio Castroneves.
Still, a "choker on ovals" stigma latched onto Power the past few years after he came up short in three consecutive battles for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Critics point out the pit lane incident in the 2010 Kentucky Speedway race, and the season finale crashes at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in 2011 and '12.
But since that crushing moment at Fontana during the last race of the 2012 campaign, in which his Team Penske Chevrolet snapped into a spin and into the wall, Power has become one of the better oval racers in the IndyCar Series. He led most of the race at Texas Motor Speedway until a blocking penalty left him seventh at the flag, and then he finished third at Milwaukee in 2013. Power backed that up with a competitive fourth place at Pocono before breaking through for his first full-length oval race win in the 500-miler at Auto Club Speedway.
This year, the same kind of promise has been there, but it wasn't until Sunday -- when Power led 228 of 250 laps at the Milwaukee Mile to claim the trophy at the ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 -- that he put a full oval race weekend together. The dominant performance erased memories of potential wins compromised by speeding penalties in pit lane at Indianapolis and Pocono, and put the Australian driver in a powerful position with a 39-point lead over Castroneves in the battle for the 2014 IndyCar Series championship.
As the defending race winner at both upcoming venues (Sonoma Raceway, Aug. 24; Auto Club Speedway, Aug. 30), the title is seemingly Power's to lose.
"I've been in this situation before," he acknowledged after his 24th career Indy car race win, but just his third on an oval. "The difference is that I don't have a weakness anymore. Last year ovals were very strong for me, and this year even stronger. I have the whole package.
"It's just a matter of executing on the weekend," Power added. "There's no doubt in your mind you can do it. You know you can do it. You just have to be very focused and get the job done."
Power hasn't completely eliminated mistakes from his game, as evidenced by penalties for a variety of infractions this year. But he's had enough speed and composure to still pull decent results from the bag.
"Those penalties, all of them except one, I recovered to at least second," he observed. "I guess Indy and Pocono were bad hits. I've just been calm all year, plodding away, doing my job.
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"This is the first year I can say to myself that I'm a better driver," he continued. "I felt 2007 was a year where I felt I was like at my absolute optimum [Power finished fourth in the Champ Car-sanctioned Indy car series, with two wins and five poles], but I can really say this year I feel as though now I am just a better all-around driver, without the massive intensity.
"It's funny, you drive with very low emotion -- just kind of like a computer, you know what I mean?" he concluded. "That's how I seem to find myself a bit more these days. I guess it just comes with age."
Nowhere is experience more important than on ovals, that uniquely American form of racing that has troubled many pedigreed international road racers.
But aside from driving technique, oval racing requires a different mindset from a driver -- one that Power is really beginning to master.
"Definitely, I understand when the car's bad, you're not a bad driver," he said. "That's the thing -- you start to lose your own self-confidence. I think you just kind of really learn to work on the car because you know you can do it once you've won a couple of ovals, once you've had a good car.
"I started figuring them out last year and they've become my favorite tracks."
With 39 points in hand over Castroneves and 92 over next-closest pursuer Simon Pagenaud, Power must now prove that he can close out a championship.
Based on recent history, it will be a shock if he does anything but dominate the race at Sonoma Raceway. Power has never qualified lower than fourth in five previous starts there; he has won the race three of the past four years and finished second to then-teammate Ryan Briscoe in 2012.
There's no reason to believe that Power can't be in top form on the Fontana oval, either, after leading 103 laps from pole position last year on the way to his first 500-mile race win.
The IndyCar Series distinguishes itself from other forms of racing through the sheer diversity of the schedule, with short ovals, superspeedways, natural terrain road courses and concrete-lined street circuits.
Power has shown he can do it all. His three race wins in 2014 have come on the St. Petersburg and Belle Isle street courses and the Milwaukee bullring, and his poles came at Barber Motorsports Park and Texas Motor Speedway.
"I think you've got to turn up to every track, doesn't matter what it is, and know that you have a chance to win," he said. "I just think that's how you become a champion, and I'm very determined for that to happen this year.
"The ultimate goal is for Roger Penske to win one," Power added. "We've just let too many get away. Too many times second, so we've got to keep that in mind."