The Contenders, Part II: Will Power

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As the IZOD IndyCar Series heads into its championship weekend, there are two drivers eligible to win the title. On Monday, Oilpressure.com took a look at Ryan Hunter-Reay. Today, we’ll discuss Will Power.

Of all the drivers that were expected to compete for this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series championship, Will Power was at or near the top of almost everyone’s list. Why not? He had been in the mix of the last two championships going into the last weekend – eventually losing both to Dario Franchitti. Franchitti was expected to be there as well, but he has had a dismal season and sitting in ninth place in points, Franchitti will not win the championship for a season he has driven in for the first time since 2006 (Franchitti did not participate in the 2008 IndyCar season).

Part of the reason that Will Power was expected to be a contender for the championship is his prowess on road & street courses. The native Australian was coming off of a season where he won six races and entering a season that had only five ovals on the schedule. After scoring a seventh place finish at the season-opener at St. Petersburg, Power reeled off three straight victories at Barber, Long Beach and São Paulo to take a commanding lead in the points headed into Indianapolis, which was the first oval of the season. Although he had a decent qualifying effort and started fifth, things did not go well on Race Day. On Lap 81, Power was collected in Mike Conway’s accident and his day was done. He settled for twenty-eighth. It was Power’s worst Five-Hundred finish in five tries, with his best coming in 2009 when he finished fifth in a part-time effort with Team Penske.

Like the other championship contender, Ryan Hunter-Reay, things didn’t look so good for Power just a few seasons ago. In fact, the two contenders share a lot of similarities. They are both the same age – thirty-one. They both share a background in Champ Car and both had their careers appear in doubt when their teams suspended operations. Both took a chance on rides that were not certain, but have now seen their risks pay off as the championship battle has come down to both drivers.

Will Power joined Champ Car near the end of the 2005 season with Team Australia, which was the remnants of Derrick Walker’s team. In the two complete seasons Power drove for Team Australia, he posted finishes of sixth and fourth respectively in the championship totals, before the team shut down at the end of 2007. Power took the Aussie Vineyards sponsorship and signed with KV Racing for the 2008 season. Before turning a wheel in competition for KV, Champ Car and the IndyCar unified under the IndyCar banner. Power and KV were forced to adapt to an unfamiliar chassis and new tracks that included several ovals. Power showed his muscle when he won the Champ Car Finale at Long Beach in the final race for the DP-01. Overall, Power finished twelfth in his first season in IndyCar.

The Aussie Vineyard sponsorship went away prior to the 2009 season. KV’s financial future was tenuous at best and they opted to run second-year driver Mario Moraes as their only full-time driver. Power and his 2008 KV teammate Oriol Servia were left with nothing for 2009. Servia would run a one-off effort at Indianapolis for Hunter-Reay’s previous employer, Rahal-Letterman – who had dropped out of full-time competition prior to 2009. Power was left to take a very uncertain position with Team Penske to substitute for Helio Castroneves, who faced an uncertain future with his tax evasion trial looming.

Some questioned Power taking such a temporary and uncertain ride. But Power echoed what Rick Mears had said over thirty years earlier when he accepted a part-time ride with Team Penske – that a part-time ride with Roger Penske is better than a full-time deal with most other teams. I’d say it worked out OK for Rick Mears and it has for Will Power, too.

As it turned out, Castroneves was out of the car for one race. He was acquitted just before the second race of the season at Long Beach and flew to California in time to qualify for the race. Never one to be caught off guard, Penske had brought a third car for Power in the event that things transpired as they did. The new No.12 entry would be sponsored by Verizon and not carry the familiar Marlboro paint scheme so synonymous with Team Penske. Helio finished seventh, while Power won the pole and finished second to Franchitti in the race. Power left Long Beach sitting in second in the points, but had no ride for the next race at Kansas. The third Penske car that Power drove at Long Beach had been run by Penske’s Grand-Am team and they had a race that weekend. Power was left sitting in the sidelines.

To reward Power’s efforts, Penske ran him in a third car at Indianapolis where he finished fifth. He also entered Power in many more IndyCar events that did not conflict with that team’s Grand-Am schedule. Power finished third at Toronto, he won at Edmonton and ended with a ninth place finish at Kentucky. He had been quick everywhere he had raced for Penske, especially in the street circuits. In six starts for Penske, he had an average finish of 4.3. It all came to a scary end at Sonoma, however. In practice, Power topped a hill only to find the sideways car of Nelson Philippe in his path. The two cars collided, injuring both drivers. Power’s season was over as he suffered two fractured vertebrae.

But he had shown Roger Penske enough to convince him to run a third full-time car in 2010 for the first time since 1994. The Verizon sponsorship would be carried by Power, although the other two Penske entries would carry unsponsored livery similar to Power’s. Suddenly, it appeared there was a new leader at team Penske. Power did not disappoint. While Power was in contention for the 2010 championship until the final race, his two Penske teammates finished out of contention. The passing of the torch was even more evident last year, as Power finished second with Briscoe sixth and Castroneves a disappointing eleventh.

This season, Power leads the championship by seventeen points over Hunter-Reay headed into the final race. Helio is third with no chance of winning the points battle, while Briscoe is sixth and rumored to be on his way out from Team Penske.

The quirky but personable driver from Toowoomba, Queensland in Australia is not without controversy. His hilarious double-bird salute to Brian Barnhart after the New Hampshire race did not amuse INDYCAR officials. His off-the-cuff comments of Dario being “…a bit of a wanker” probably did not please the image-conscious Penske. Just last weekend, he angered many by dropping an F-bomb on the IMS Radio Network following the race at Baltimore. Some insisted that he should be suspended for the next race. While INDYCAR was probably not pleased with the comments, don’t expect them to decide the championship over foul language.

Like Ryan Hunter-Reay, his counterpart this weekend, it has been a sometimes bumpy road for Will power to get where he is. There have been struggles and some very shaky and uncertain times for Power. He has now positioned himself to possibly win his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship.

Some will say that being with Team Penske has made things not so bumpy, but consider this fact. Since Team Penske left CART for IndyCar in 2002 and Andretti-Green came over one year later, AGR/Andretti Autosport has won three championships and Penske has won one. Andretti also won their most recent championship since Penske. But make no mistake, Will Power drives for the best team in the business. Who knows? Maybe they will both be teammates next year.

George Phillips

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3 Responses to “The Contenders, Part II: Will Power”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    A very nice summary of what we need to know about Will Power heading into Saturday night’s race.
    I am surprised that Power is thus far leading the vote in today’s poll, though, considering that Hunter-Reay once drove for Paul Gentilozzi…

  2. The vote surprises me as well. RHR has been in some rides that were very questionable at best and seems to have had to claw his way into the mix. I am excited that the series has two very capable drivers in the middle of their prime years–it should bode well for the series’ future. Looking forward to this weekend’s race!

  3. Another fine post, George, however, as much as I like Will Power I am going with RHR. His rise to the top is one of several things that is making this season so much fun.

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