In 2010 it was a brush with the wall at Homestead in Florida. A year later in 2011, a poor result at Kentucky, a tragedy-fused cancelled final race in Las Vegas and injured back unravelled it again and once again in 2012, a spin and a crash early on in the final race derailed a title tilt at the final hurdle.
Today, all the pieces in the puzzle fit together as Will Power finally jettisoned the mental weight of three heartbreaking failures to become the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion and the first Australian-born driver to claim the crown.
To claim the title, Power was the beneficiary of misfortunes to befall the two other men with any kind of a mathematical possibility to win the title in Simon Pagenaud and team-mate Helio Castroneves. Sam Schmidt?s French charger suffered from a poor handling car all night – which for the most part was nearly undriveable – while Castroneves fell close to the finish with a drive-through penalty issued for an infringement of the pit lane limits.
At the end of the race tonight, Power admitted the last 15 days had been the “worst of his life”. His visibly calm and cool exterior had been replaced with nerves and outright fear at the possibility that it could all come unstuck once again. The Australian said he’d barely slept and apologised for his stress being shared by his wife Liz. Add to that, he along with everybody else in the series had been affected by the recent 6.0 earthquake in the Napa Valley in Northern California, which occurred on race-day a week ago. The very hotel in which Power and his wife had been staying was destroyed by the tremor, not to mention significant damage to a large part of the township. There was no doubt Power was working to get through every minute of every day in the lead-up to Saturday night’s decider.
Coming into Fontana, Power held a 51-point lead over Castroneves, which was reduced to 50 once the Brazilian claimed pole position. The Aussie, on the other hand, never got it together in qualifying and found himself second-to-last ahead of only rookie Carlos Huertas. Whether he felt he needed any more reason to earn the title or not, we’ll never know, but the deck had been stacked and it was all left to do come Saturday night in southern California.
From the start, Power held back from the rest of the field to avoid any possible first-lap crashes or skirmishes between drivers that may have consequences in which he could find himself involved. A DNF was the last thing Power needed, even with the possibility of that still allowing him to claim the title. Once the field sorted themselves out through the first corner, Power hit the accelerator and began to make headway through the field.
Castroneves was settling himself within the top-three alongside fellow front-row starters Juan Pablo Montoya and Josef Newgarden, with the two Ganassi drivers close behind. One of Power’s title-chasing rivals eliminated himself from contention quite early on, as Simon Pagenaud developed ill-handling in his machine, forcing an early pit stop that sent him down two laps on the leaders. This was as good as the evening got for the ‘Friendly Frog’, as subsequent pit stops saw the team taking more and more front wing from the car. He never recovered, and eventually finished seven laps down in 20th and last, a result that eventually dropped him four places in the overall championship standings to seventh behind Kanaan, Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Montoya. It was a night to forget all around the Sam Schmidt team, which saw the second car of Mikhail Aleshin destroyed in a huge smash in final practice. Aleshin suffered multiple broken bones in the accident, and was fortunate not to have more critical injuries.
Power continued to slowly thread his way through the field, helped by slick pit stops by the ultra-professional Penske crew. Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan were hovering around the lead through most of the 250 laps.
The race ran caution-free well to around two-thirds distance and ended up setting a record for the longest caution-free 500-mile race in series history. The furious and flowing racing continued until around Lap 170, when Ryan Hunter-Reay spun into the infield grass area while exiting Turn 4.
Throughout his off-track excursion, Hunter-Reay didn’t hit anything, so while the first (and only) full-course caution was thrown, the Holmatro Safety Team calmly attended to the Indy 500 champion’s car and got him on his way again. Most of the field headed for the pits on this occasion, with Kanaan and Dixon getting the jump on their Penske rivals and heading into the lead. By this point, Power was running sixth, the lowest he could afford to finish and claim the title regardless of any other possible result.
In the pitlane, Power’s wife Liz and mother Marge were gnawing their fingernails nearly down to the bone with nerves and anxiety. They knew better than anybody, besides Power himself, that it wasn’t over until it was over.
At the restart, Power moved into the lead, which didn’t last long as he was developing an ill-handling car of his own. Then, the decisive move came from Race Control, who issued a drive-through penalty to Castroneves. Approaching the pits for his final stop, Castroneves inadvertently moved from the pit lane entry and back onto the track, across the separation line – a major no-no. There was no controversy in the call and it was a black-and-white ruling. The slow journey through pit lane cost Castroneves a lap and effectively ruled him out of contention. He eventually finished 14th and one lap from the leaders.
Power’s poor-handling car was getting increasingly worse and he asked his chief strategist and Team Penske President Tim Cindric if he could sacrifice any positions, to which he was told it was best if he didn’t. Instead, Power nursed his car home to eventually finish ninth, ahead of his two championship rivals and claiming the long-evasive crown he so desired.
“Oh my God, I was crying over the line. It went on and on, and I slowly made up positions… This is surreal, man. I can’t believe it. I am so mentally exhausted now. That was mega,” Power told NBCSN pit lane reporter Marty Snider after extricating himself from the car.
At the front, Tony Kanaan crossed the line in first position, claiming his first win since last year’s Indy 500 and his first since assuming the #10 entry vacated involuntarily by his good friend Dario Franchitti, who was on hand to offer congratulations.
Castroneves, playing the team game like the professional he is, was happy for Power but equally disappointed in securing his fourth career runner-up finish in the championship. Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter rounded out the podium.
Celebrations were also taking place down at Andretti Autosports, with Carlos Munoz taking out the Rookie of the Year honours, finishing the season with two podium finishes as highlights.
The man of the moment however was Will Power, who proudly waved the Australian flag as he was presented with the Astor Cup, praising his team, his nation and the proud people of Toowoomba, who will no doubt also be celebrating well into the night.
2014 IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 – Race Result (250 laps):
|Driver||Team / Entry||Result|
|1.||Tony Kanaan||Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet||2:32:58.4659|
|2.||Scott Dixon||Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet||+ 3.6750|
|3.||Ed Carpenter||Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet||+ 7.3053|
|4.||Juan Pablo Montoya||Team Penske Chevrolet||+ 7.9238|
|5.||James Hinchcliffe||Andretti Autosport Honda||+ 11.8858|
|6.||Takuma Sato||A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda||+ 12.6887|
|7.||Ryan Briscoe||Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet||+ 16.5113|
|8.||Carlos Muñoz||Andretti Autosport Honda||+ 23.2807|
|9.||Will Power||Team Penske Chevrolet||+ 28.3456|
|10.||Josef Newgarden||Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda||+ 32.1856|
|11.||Marco Andretti||Andretti Autosport Honda||+ 1:02.4841|
|12.||Charlie Kimball||Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet||– 1 lap|
|13.||Justin Wilson||Dale Coyne Racing Honda||– 1 lap|
|14.||Hélio Castroneves||Team Penske Chevrolet||– 1 lap|
|15.||Jack Hawksworth||Bryan Herta Autosport Honda||– 1 lap|
|16.||Ryan Hunter-Reay||Andretti Autosport Honda||– 2 laps|
|17.||Sebastián Saavedra||KV Racing Technology / AFS Racing Honda||– 2 laps|
|18.||Sébastien Bourdais||KV Racing Technology Honda||– 5 laps|
|19.||Graham Rahal||Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda||– 6 laps|
|20.||Simon Pagenaud||Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda||– 7 laps|
|DNF.||Carlos Huertas||Dale Coyne Racing Honda||21 laps|
|DNS.||Mikhail Aleshin||Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda||Injured|
Images via Motorsport.com