- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- For a moment, ignore the usual litany of issues plaguing the IZOD IndyCar Series and focus instead on the championship battle that continues this weekend with the Edmonton Indy.
Back in April, Team Penske's Will Power won Rounds 2, 3 and 4 of the campaign and built a 45-point advantage. But he has cracked the top 10 twice in the subsequent six races and suffered a pair of crashes at Indianapolis and Iowa.
Meanwhile, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport went on a three-race win streak and emerged with a 34-point lead over Power following the Honda Indy Toronto. Now, with just five races remaining, it's crunch time.
Power knows that a 34-point deficit can be overcome; in 2010, he led Dario Franchitti by 41 points with five races to go but saw his advantage slip away as Franchitti won his third IndyCar Series crown in four years and second consecutive.
But history also has shown that the driver who is leading the standings with five races to go has ended up winning the championship in seven of the past 10 years.
The exceptions came in the aforementioned 2010 title tilt and in 2009, when Franchitti was third in the standings with five races remaining, 16 points behind leader Ryan Briscoe. Before that, you have to go back to 2003, when Scott Dixon moved from fourth to first in the final five races, overcoming a 24-point deficit to Tony Kanaan.
Edmonton is a likely place for Power to turn around his recent bad fortunes. The 31-year-old Australian has an impressive record on both versions of the temporary road course made up of runways and taxiways at the Edmonton City Centre Airport.
He claimed pole position for the last Champ Car sanctioned race on the old layout, then scored his first victory for Penske while driving an exploratory partial first season for the team in 2009.
Power was at the center of a controversial situation at the end of the 2010 Edmonton race; he tried to pass his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves on a late restart, and when Castroneves blocked Dixon passed Power and was declared the winner of the race after Castroneves was penalized.
Last year, the first time on the shorter, tighter, 2.2-mile version of the Edmonton course, Power scored a relatively straightforward win. He also has claimed pole position for three of his six Edmonton starts and is hoping for a similar result in 2012.
"I've always enjoyed that track," he said. "Obviously, it's a different layout now, but it's a great city and good, fun racing. There's nothing better than when you win at a track. You always enjoy going back the next year."
Despite Power's mastery of Edmonton, Hunter-Reay said he believes he can compete for the win.
"The singular focus is qualify and run in the top six -- that's it," he said. "If we do that, we're most likely going to stay out of trouble and we'll be contending for the win.
"We have to be solid. We don't need to light the world on fire. We need to go out and gun it, hoping for more wins. Our bad days need to be fifth or sixth place, and our good days need to be wins."
While Power acknowledges Hunter-Reay is the championship leader, he's not ruling out a late charge from Castroneves (third in the standings, 46 points behind Hunter-Reay) and Dixon (fourth, minus-54).
"There's no one dominant, there's no one getting all the points," Power said. "There's no one really winning all the road-course races and it's really mixed up.
"I was surprised I was still leading [the championship up to Toronto] actually, considering the bad run that we had had. Other than Hunter‑Reay, let's say from second on, it was so mixed up and it wasn't filled up with guys that I was competing with in the championship, so I didn't take a big hit in the points."
I love it there, and every time you go a place where you do well, it's a no-brainer. I won once there; unfortunately, it did not count, but I do want to do it again and I know we can. We have the car.
”-- Helio Castroneves
Hunter-Reay could be in even better championship position, but he lost a potential third- or fourth-place finish when he took out Takuma Sato in a passing move gone awry on the final lap at Long Beach.
The last of Andretti Autosport's three IndyCar Series championships came in 2007 with Franchitti. The team also won titles with Kanaan in 2004 and Dan Wheldon in 2005.
"I don't know if I would say I expected to be the points leader, but I certainly expected to be contending for the championship," Hunter-Reay said. "You know, it's just nice to see that this team is reaching its potential because the potential has been there. It's a great group, and we have even better performances in us in the future.
"So it's been a lot of fun, but we're not getting ahead of ourselves. It's lap by lap, and just concentrating on being solid. I thought I was getting along with the other car pretty well, too. If we put the second half of the season that we had last year again last year, we could win this championship, for sure. We just need to put it together."
In his 15th year of racing Indy cars, Castroneves is still in search of his first championship. And he still remembers the circumstances from 2010, when his vigorous defense of the lead eventually led to the rewriting of IndyCar's blocking rules.
"I love it there, and every time you go a place where you do well, it's a no-brainer," Castroneves said. "I won once there; unfortunately, it did not count, but I do want to do it again and I know we can. We have the car."
Meanwhile, Dixon has been in the thick of every IndyCar championship battle since 2006 and emerged with the 2008 title.
Dixon has led seven of the 10 IndyCar races in 2012 for a series-leading 405 laps. But he has used his full allotment of five Honda engines and will serve a 10-place grid penalty at Edmonton this weekend, meaning he can start no higher than 11th.