Does Last Weekend Tell Us Anything?
Normally, I tend to take the opening race of the Verizon IndyCar Series at face-value. After all, it seems that more times than not – the winner of the season-opening race does not go on to win the championship. Sometimes, they are not even a contender. Take for instance, last year’s winner James Hinchcliffe. He won the opener at St. Petersburg, but went on to have a very up and down season. He won three races, yet had so many DNF’s, that he finished a very distant eighth place in points. Two years ago, Helio Castroneves won at St. Petersburg and finished a forgettable fourth in points.
In fact, if you look at the opening race winners over the past decade – only twice has the first victory of the season translated into a championship season – 2008, when eventual season champion Scott Dixon won the opener at Homestead; and 2011 when Dario Franchitti won at St. Pete and ended up winning his fourth and final championship.
So, what does that mean for this season? Absolutely nothing, because I think that Will Power is going to buck the trend and win the 2014 championship. Heading into the Month of May last season, we were all astonished that Will Power had gone more than a year without a victory. We figured it was just an anomaly and he would rediscover his winning ways very soon. The two races in May came and went without a Power victory. Then June. Then July. It wasn’t until the last weekend in August that Will Power found his stride and victory lane at Sonoma.
But once he figured it out and did away with whatever demon that was haunting him – Power went on a tear that continued into this past weekend. Power won three of the final five races of 2013, including the season finale at Fontana – a five-hundred mile oval.
As good a driver as Will Power is, the oval tracks have always been considered his Achilles heel. Prior to last year’s race at Fontana, his only oval victory had an asterisk beside it – one of the twin races at Texas Motor Speedway, with his third-place starting position determined by a draw. The race distance was only 171 miles. Most fans, myself included, considered this a shallow win on an oval and felt that Power needed to win a regular oval to lay full claim to an oval victory. After his win at Fontana, Will Power is a full-fledged member of the club.
Will Power had a full sixteen months without visiting victory lane, before going on his late season tear. From the look of things, he did not lose any focus over the offseason.
Aside from his lack of dominance on oval tracks, I’ve always felt that Will Power’s biggest problem was allowing his focus to drift from time to time. It may be for only a few seconds at a crucial time in a race, causing an inopportune brain-fade – or it may be over the course of an entire race weekend when he just can’t seem to put it together. But when he is focused and on-point, the rest of the field doesn’t stand a chance.
Such was the case this past Sunday. Power started fourth on the grid, but quickly moved forward. By Lap 31, he was in the lead. Takuma Sato led a few laps after that, but Will Power was in a class of his on. Even after the controversial re-start on Lap 82, Power kept his focus and pretty well checked out on Ryan Hunter-Reay, his closest pursuer.
The curious restart aside, Power put on a clinic on Sunday. He was about as close to perfect as anyone on a bumpy street course can be.
Two years ago, after finishing seventh in the season-opener, Power reeled off three victories in a row – opening a commanding points lead in the process. The problem was, he never won again for the rest of the season. He saw his giant lead from the spring slowly melt away in the summer, until Ryan Hunter-Reay snatched it away for good on his way to his only championship.
You can look at 2012 and 2013 and conclude that Will Power is very streaky – three wins in a row, then sixteen months with no wins before closing out 2013 with three wins in five races.
I see a different Will Power now as compared to two years ago. He now knows he cannot simply rely on his innate talent and ability. He has to maintain focus each and every weekend. The talent level is too high in the Verizon IndyCar Series for any driver to mentally take a race weekend off. I say this like I’ve endured seasons in the cockpit from a driver’s perspective. But I’ve watched a lot of races over the years. I’ve seen drivers allow championships to slip through their fingers, all because they allowed themselves to relax – just for a few seconds.
Will Power has been guilty of the untimely unforced error in the past, and it has cost him more than one championship. The Will Power of today is wiser and more mature. Over this compressed season, I think he will maintain his focus each and every race weekend. He’s made mistakes and he’s learned from them. Based on what I saw in his eyes and demeanor this past weekend, I think Will Power has his eyes on the prize. And that doesn’t speak well for the rest of the field.