- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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BALTIMORE -- Once again, Will Power was the fastest man on the track in an Indy car race.
Once again, he didn't win.
Power crushed his competition in qualifying for the Grand Prix of Baltimore, claiming pole position for the 23rd time in the 52 races since he joined Team Penske on a part-time basis in 2009.
But the unpredictable nature of the Izod IndyCar Series means the fastest driver doesn't always win. And after finishing sixth Sunday in Baltimore, Power must be starting to wonder what it's going to take for him to score his first win since he triumphed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, four months ago.
The 31-year-old Australian has won 15 races during his Penske tenure, including three in a row earlier this year. A win on Sunday in Baltimore would have almost guaranteed Power's first (and Team Penske's 13th) IndyCar Series championship.
Instead, chief rival Ryan Hunter-Reay used an aggressive strategy devised by team owner Michael Andretti to score an unlikely victory on the Baltimore streets after starting from 10th place. In the process, he cut Power's championship lead from 37 to 17 points.
It's the third consecutive season that Power enters the final race of the season involved in a close championship battle. So far, he's 0-for-2.
"Every weekend, we're the quickest -- not just the quickest, but by a bunch," he said Sunday after the race. "And circumstances seem to prevent us from winning. That can become frustrating when you're the quickest guy in town.
"When you look at the last three races Mid Ohio, pole, quickest again, lost in the pits. Sonoma, lost it on the yellow. And today lost it with the weather. It never comes easy. We just have to do our best and fight like a dog 'til the end. We'll come out swinging."
The uncertain weather was a wild card that Power didn't need. The rain started falling about 10 laps in, and by the time all the pit stops and tire strategies had worked themselves out, he found himself mired in the pack in 17th place.
Power had a stressful day keeping his car intact as he worked his way through the pack. Meanwhile, Hunter-Reay, with superior track position from Lap 19 onward, pulled off an audacious restart on Lap 69, passing Power's teammate Ryan Briscoe to steal a potentially momentum-shifting victory.
Power and the Penske team were unhappy about the restart after the race, claiming that Hunter-Reay jumped it. In the past, Power might have dwelled on the perceived injustice.
But even though the race wins haven't materialized since springtime, Power has maintained a more positive and optimistic outlook this year than he may have outwardly displayed in his 2010 and '11 clashes with Dario Franchitti.
"Everyone's just looking at what the potential was, and the potential was winning the last three races," he said. "After winning three races in the beginning of the year in a row and not to win another one, we never would have thought that.
"So it's actually not bad. We keep getting points, we're here and we have a 17-point lead. We just need to forget about this -- you know, if we thought with three races to go we would have a 17-point lead now, we would actually be pretty happy."
After seeing his points lead cut in half at Baltimore, talk inevitably turned to Power's ability to close out a championship. Once again, the season finale is on a high-speed oval, where Power has scored only one of his 18 career wins.
There's the additional plot line of the 500-mile race length, IndyCar's first 500-miler outside of Indianapolis in a decade.
"Now we get to go to Fontana, which is an absolute crapshoot," observed Hunter-Reay. "It's wide open and anybody's race."
This is the first time Hunter-Reay has been in contention for an Indy car championship in his career, and he seems as relaxed as can be. It's a stark contrast to Power's often intense public persona.
"The championship was on the line today and that's really the only thing I'm fixated on winning," Hunter-Reay said. "This is all I've worked for my entire life, and to come this close, I haven't been nervous at all or anything. We've been keeping it light and having fun. I've just been enjoying it and driving 110 percent and really getting along with the cars. I feel like I'm in rhythm with the car. Hopefully we'll have that at Fontana, too."
Power is also ready for the 500-mile showdown at Fontana. On Sunday, he managed to keep his disappointment of seeing another potential race win slip away in check and he engaged in friendly banter with his championship rival.
"The good news is, if I take Hunter-Reay out in the last race, we crash out together, I win," he joked as Hunter-Reay arrived at the postrace news conference.
"Ryan is a very tough competitor and we both understand the bad-luck thing," Power added. "The guy who has the least amount of those sort of days wins the championship. And that's just how it goes. You can be as upset as you want at the time and say it not fair and bad luck and all this, but at the end of the day it kind of all works itself out by the end.
"It's going to be interesting, a 500-mile race," he said. "Maybe it will be the first time I finish the last race, because every year, I get crashed out. I'm determined this time to just finish the last race -- and finish it as the leader of the championship."
Will Power had hoped to celebrate his first IndyCar Series championship Sunday in Baltimore. But Ryan Hunter-Reay ruined the party.