The measure of a race driver is usually wins and championships. At least that’s how most of the great ones are remembered or rated. Unless you are Parnelli Jones, who retired from Indy cars in his prime at the age of 33 with only six victories. Or Dan Gurney, who was too busy chasing Formula 1 glory to seriously contest for the USAC national championship. And Stirling Moss is revered as the greatest F1 driver to never be No. 1.
That trio is legendary because of their diversity and monstrous talent in the deadliest era of motorsports. The fact they never won a championship in their respective areas of expertise had no bearing on their reputations.
However, despite his prowess in American open wheel racing the past six seasons, Will Power likely wasn’t ever going to command that kind of respect. Even though he’s won 21 of his 92 starts for Roger Penske since joining as a sub and then a part-time third car in 2009 (RIGHT), led 2,381 laps and earned 30 pole positions, Power had never delivered under the gun. From “can’t miss” to “can’t close,” his brilliance had been overshadowed by his bumbling at season’s end. Three times he led the point standings with two races remaining and three times he came up empty for The Captain.
Now, Penske cherishes Indianapolis 500 wins a lot more than championships (Tom Sneva got fired after back-to-back titles in 1977-’78) but a bad pattern was developing with Power.
After a magnificent sweep at Milwaukee (winning the pole with a ballsy run and dominating the race), the 33-year-old Aussie was about to dot the “i” on Champion at Sonoma when he stumbled again. Leading comfortably from the pole, he fell back to seventh in a pit stop exchange and then spun out all by himself.
Instead of clinching the crown, he was clenching his teeth because he’d left the door open for teammate Helio Castroneves. Make no mistake, with a 51-point advantage heading for the Fontana finale, Power would need to really screw up to lose this time. And, of course, he went halfway to doing that by qualifying next to last while Castroneves captured the pole and the momentum with the MAVTV 500 paying double points.
So last Saturday night was literally the fork in the road for the young man who’s dazzled us with his speed but disappointed us with his finishing kick. He looked a little frazzled following qualifying and the pre-race talk from just about everyone centered around Power. How would he handle the pressure this time? A spin? Speeding in the pits? Incurring a penalty for blocking? Or like a champion?
“Will did exactly what he needed to do and I was very proud of how he responded,” said Penske after Power secured RP’s first title since 2006 with a smart start, a burst to the front and a sensible ninth place at the end. “I think we all knew he had the ability to be a champion and now he is.”
A deserving champion is how I’d describe the one-time skate-boarding hooligan from Toowoomba. When he flashed on the scene in 2005 at Champ Car for Derrick Walker’s team, Power was blindingly fast and maddeningly inconsistent. He also seemed to lack confidence.
But when he scored his first win in Las Vegas in 2007 (ABOVE), something clicked. OK, after clinching the last ever Champ Car race at Long Beach in 2008, he struggled at KV Racing during that merger year, but when Walker convinced Penske to hire him for 2009, it was the break that all 20-somethings pray for in Indy car racing. He had the pedigree and now he had the wheels to show it off.
Power did exactly what is expected at Team Penske: he won races but there was an imbalance – domination on road and street circuits and not quite good enough on ovals. And he didn’t mask his less-than-thrilled attitude toward left-turn-only tracks but finally made a breakthrough win at Texas in 2011 (LEFT, with Dario Franchitti after each won a leg of the double-header).
Making marked improvement the past two seasons, he became a contender on ovals and a villain in many circles for his aggressive driving everywhere. That’s why we loved or hated Paul Tracy, and Power was polarizing as well – exactly what IndyCar needs but not high on The Captain’s list. He favors the good guys like Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr., not the bad boys like Sneva and Tracy.
When Power dived to the inside on a restart the other night, passed three cars and charged into the lead, I’m sure RP was screaming to himself.
Yet that’s why Power is the winningest driver of this decade…and also why he’s only got one championship so far. He goes for it, damn the torpedoes and taking it easy. After Castroneves got a penalty, Will finally backed off and eased back into the pack with an ill-handling car, he did it reluctantly because he got to where he is by gassing it.
Without double points for the 500-mile races, Power would have had the title sewn up at Sonoma. Without some unforced errors, he’d probably have clinched it at Milwaukee (RIGHT).
But a series that hasn’t needed gimmicks to make things exciting at the end of the season used one to create some drama.
Fortunately it didn’t change the outcome.
Sure, there were times this year when it didn’t seem like anybody wanted the 2014 championship, but the right guy will be wearing No. 1 next year. And he may not let go of it for a while.
The replay of Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Fontana will air on NBCSN Tuesday night at 8 p.m., followed by the championship banquet show.