- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Maybe Will Power should start from midfield every week. It seems to work better for him than pole position.
Coming from 12th on the grid, Power drove his Verizon Team Penske car to a well-judged victory over Simon Pagenaud in the 38th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. It was the second win in as many races for Power, who took over the points lead in the Izod IndyCar Series.
Maybe more importantly, it was the second event in a row that the fiery Australian came home victorious in a race he didn't think he could win.
"If you get on pole you won't win," Power said. "We've experienced that a number of times here and many other tracks.
"This was a very sweet victory because I've been on pole here I think in 2009, '10 and '11, and it just frustrated me that every year something would happen and I couldn't win. Once again this weekend, I'm starting 12th and I felt as though, 'That's impossible to win. I've got another bad year at Long Beach.'
"But it was just a good race," he concluded. "I pushed hard all the time, no mistakes, great strategy, and just a great team effort again."
Power was the second fastest qualifier at Long Beach, but he and the 10 other drivers using Chevrolet engines were moved back 10 places on the grid after having new motors installed as a precaution before the race weekend.
A series of early full-course cautions opened up possibilities for two- and three-stop strategies. Power's strategist, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric, opted for the two-stopper, requiring Power to stretch his fuel 31 laps over the final stint (as it turned out, without the benefit of any yellows) on a track where 28 is the usual target number.
Meanwhile, Pagenaud and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports tried the three-stop gambit and came up less than a second short of beating Power and the mighty Penske team.
Pagenaud led Power by 20 seconds when he pitted for a splash-and-go on the 70th of 85 laps. He rejoined in third place, about 12 seconds behind Power.
Despite conserving fuel, Power judged his pace perfectly over the remaining laps, overcoming the potential hazard of lapped traffic with three tours to go.
"Obviously he could run hard the whole time and not save fuel, and I saved fuel and did the best lap time I could," Power said. "It was just amazing that Simon did three stops and I did two stops, like two different strategies, and the result was very similar. There was hardly any time between us as we crossed the finish line.
"It's just always a surprise in IndyCar, I think," he added. "You can never predict or assume going into a race. You just have to be smart as it plays out."
Pagenaud naturally longed for a few more laps. But he still earned an Indy car career-best finish and lies third in the championship standings.
It was also the best IndyCar Series result for Sam Schmidt's team, which has won five Indy Lights championships.
"We're a one-car operation and we don't have as much data as Penske or Ganassi, but I'm glad we're giving them a run for their money," said Pagenaud, a 27-year-old Frenchman who raced Indy cars in 2007 before competing in sports cars the past few years. "The fact that we're a one-car team is actually not a bad thing because they're very focused on just my car and very focused on my feedback. So everything I'm asking, I get it."
Third place was in dispute right until the end, when Ryan Hunter-Reay tapped Takuma Sato into a spin on the final lap. Hunter-Reay was penalized 30 seconds, which knocked him back to sixth place. His Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe inherited the final podium position ahead of Tony Kanaan and JR Hildebrand.
"We just were stuck in traffic all day long," said Briscoe, who was the fastest qualifier with a new track record but started 11th after the Chevrolet penalty. "It's a real shame because I think we had the quickest car out there and we just couldn't do anything with it. It was just a really frustrating day."
That was just one of my best wins. I love it.
”-- Will Power
But that was vastly better than the rival Chip Ganassi Racing team fared.
Dario Franchitti started from pole position but quickly faded as his struggle to get to grips with the new Dallara DW12 continued. Franchitti emerged from a tricky first corner in the lead after rookie front-row starter Josef Newgarden failed to pull off an audacious move, but it was all downhill from there for the four-time IndyCar Series champion.
His car developed severe understeer after about five laps and Franchitti tumbled down to fifth place in the first 15 laps. He lost more ground with a turbo-boost glitch on a restart, then had to change a front wing after a clash with Briscoe.
"A disaster, all in all," Franchitti said. "We know what we need to work on to make the car better but didn't have the track time this weekend to do it."
Franchitti's 15th-place finish was still better than his teammate Scott Dixon's DNF. The New Zealander moved up early to fourth place from ninth on the grid, but his Honda-powered car stopped on track during a full-course caution and would not restart.
Ganassi driver Graham Rahal was involved in the most spectacular accident (and best battle of words) on the day. Marco Andretti's car was pitched into a spinning flight through the air after it went up over the rear wheel of Rahal's car.
Safety bumpers mounted behind the rear wheels of the DW12 failed to prevent Andretti's car from being launched. They didn't prevent tempers from flaring, either.
"There's one thing blocking, and another thing chopping," Andretti fumed. "That was chopping."
"He wasn't going to make the corner no matter what," retorted Rahal, prompting Andretti to tweet: "For those who thought I was not making the corner. You can go sit in one."
There was no such controversy up front. Power may have surprised himself by winning, but not many others.
"I go into every season thinking that there's no way I can win another race," Power revealed. "I don't know why I feel like that, but I do. I guess I have an insecurity or something, or I don't believe in myself enough. That's always my feeling.
"That was just one of my best wins. I love it."