Will Power not letting IndyCar championship slip away this season
Will Power was racing in the British Formula 3 Series in 2004 when he met fellow Australian Mark Webber, at the time racing for Jaguar (he's currently with Red Bull in Formula 1).
It was Power's second season in British F3, one of F1's traditional proving grounds, which meant that it was time to move up in 2005. Each series in the development ladder costs more money and like many young drivers around the world, Power was having problems finding the funds to take him to the next level.
Webber had been through the same difficult process and knew that it takes more than talent to succeed. He offered to help Power.
"He financially helped me to do the World Series by Renault in 2005 and finish (the 2004 British) F3," Power said. "He understood the circumstances and was in a position to give back."
It proved to be the impetus that moved Power's career forward, as it unfolded into the IZOD IndyCar Series over the next several years. And now, the 31-year-old Team Penske driver is in position to clinch the championship Sunday -- he's 36 points in front of Ryan Hunter-Reay, 41 ahead of Helio Castroneves and 54 over Scott Dixon -- in the Grand Prix of Baltimore.
Power needs to be 54 ahead of all three drivers to leave Baltimore, the next-to-last race of the season, with the championship secure. He's a world-class driver who excels in street races like Baltimore, where he started from pole and won a year ago, but there's also extraordinary pressure to complete the job.
But Power knows how to win in IndyCar. He has 15 in 100 starts and had three in 31 in Champ Car, the series that brought him to North America.
That 2005 season was the key for Power. He won two races in the World Series by Renault and was second in the championship when Champ Car's Team Australia summoned him to race at Surfers Paradise, Australia. It signed him to a multi-year contract following the race. Power transitioned from a prospect constantly searching for sponsorship to a driver being paid to drive. Power drove in Champ Car's final two seasons before it went bankrupt and moved with KV Racing Technology into IndyCar in 2008.
When IndyCar decided to not go back to Surfers Paradise, Team Australia withdrew its backing and Power had to look for a job. But this time he had wins and experience on his side, and Roger Penske signed him to temporarily replace Castroneves, on trial for tax evasion. Castroneves was acquitted during the race at Long Beach, so he returned to the team. For a moment Power looked to be on the job search again, but Penske rolled out a third car for Power. Power finished second at Long Beach.
Power ran four more races for Penske that season, winning at Edmonton, and the team expanded to three cars starting in 2010.
Webber turned out to be quite a talent scout.
"It was a make-or-break time for him (in 2004), but I could see how determined he was not to give up and go home," Webber told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2010. "It was clear he was an incredibly focused guy who had talent and just needed a bit of advice and a few introductions.
"You can have all the talent in the world, but you need to get yourself in a position where he can prove it on a world stage and get the right people to take notice."
The past two years the IndyCar championship has slipped away from Power late in the season. He had an 11-point advantage over Franchitti going into the next-to-last race in 2011 at Kentucky and led the opening 48 laps. But contact on the pit lane with Ana Beatriz damaged Power's car and he finished 19th. Franchitti finished second and had an 18-point lead, which became the final margin when the finale at Las Vegas was stopped due to the massive accident that killed Dan Wheldon and injured several other drivers, including Power.
Power led Franchitti by 11 points entering the final race of 2010 at Homestead-Miami. He was running fourth with 65 of 200 laps remaining when he brushed the wall on the fourth turn, bending the suspension. Power dropped out and Franchitti's eighth place earned him the title by five points.
Both were devastating and heart-breaking late season races for Power and the entire Penske organization, which hasn't won a championship since Sam Hornish Jr. did it in 2006.
Power is riding the momentum going into Baltimore. He finished third at Edmonton and second at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma to overtake Hunter-Reay, coming from 34 down.
In his defense Hunter-Reay has had some bad luck. He dropped out with an engine failure and finished 24th at Mid-Ohio, and was running third at Sonoma when Alex Tagliani rammed him in the back and he finished 18th.
But give credit to Power for taking advantage of the door opening to take the lead. Having been there before, he believes the experience will help him at Baltimore and, if necessary, in the finale at Auto Club Speedway in California.
"I understand how quickly things can change," Power said. "I guess once you've been through that a couple of times, you're probably a little more relaxed. At the end of the day, what will happen will happen. We have to focus on what we can control.
"Any time we're on a road and street course, we expect to run at the front. It's the team we are. I feel the way about Baltimore I do at every race, you're there to do a job. Basically, every situation, you have to make the best out of it. The competition is very tough right now. We're hoping for the best and expecting the worst."
Power won three straight races early in the season, but hasn't added a fourth. He had a commanding lead at Sonoma and was making his final pit stop when a full-course caution came out. Power exited the pits behind a group of lapped cars whose speed was controlled by the pace car and teammate Ryan Briscoe was able to go faster on the back side of the course, make his pit stop, and get out in front of Power to take the lead. Briscoe went on to win.
"I love to win, but we still got the points and made the most out of the situation that it was," Power said. "I can't help but be disappointed. The wins are right there, we're just not getting them."
Power is keeping his eye on the task at hand, which is closing out the championship at Baltimore. He knows it would be the crowning achievement of his career, but doesn't allow himself to think or talk about it.
"Obviously, it would be a big relief, no question," Power said. "Is it mathematically possible, of course it is. But it's not done, so it's not worth talking about," he said.