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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Will Power

Will Power nearly had it in the bag.

Clearly the class of the field for Team Penske in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, Power saw a 59 point lead with four races to go - and thus the series championship - slip through his hands, as oval struggles prevented Power from taking his first IndyCar title.

The fact that Power was even competing at all in 2010 was a bit of a miracle. The winner of the final Champ Car race, held at Long Beach in 2008, Power was signed by Penske in 2009 as a replacement for Helio Castroneves during his tax evasion trial. But Castroneves only missed a single race, and Power was thus shifted to a limited schedule in a third car. He won at Edmonton, but suffered two fractured vertebrae and a concussion in a Sonoma practice accident, injuries that caused him to contemplate retirement.

It was thus a bit of a shock when Roger Penske announced that he would shut down his sports car team, giving him three IndyCars for the first time since 1994, and shift the Verizon Wireless sponsorship to a driver coming off of a career threatening injury.

But Power came through immediately, winning the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300 with a daring pass of Ryan Hunter-Reay, and following up with another victory at St. Petersburg. With a worst finish of fourth and a whopping 42 point lead after the first four races of the season, the title looked like Power's to lose.

Unfortunately, ovals proved to be Power's Achilles' heel just as much as they had in previous seasons. Power had only two top five finishes on ovals prior to the 2010 season, and had never stood on the podium at the end of an oval race. Even with Penske equipment under him, Power was going to need to work hard on his oval program.

The results were so-so. With only two top-10s in the first four oval races, with a best finish of fifth at Iowa, Power was incredibly lucky to enter the next road course segment of the season with the points lead. Even then, he needed some help - Dario Franchitti had assumed the lead at Texas, but issues at Iowa gave the lead back to the Aussie.

From there, Power simply did what he did best - win on road and street courses. In the final five twisty races, he took three wins and two second place finishes, locking up the Mario Andretti Road Course Trophy before the final road race of the year at Sonoma. Fittingly, he won that race in dominant fashion, leading 73 of a possible 75 laps. The other wins came at Watkins Glen and on the streets of Toronto.

Suddenly, the wheels began to fall off.

At Chicago, Power started third and led 17 laps, marking the 13th time in the past 14 races that he had spent time up front. But he ran out of fuel in the race's closing laps, losing a lap and finishing 16th. Kentucky produced a so-so eighth place run and marked the last time that Power would lead in 2010. While teammate Castroneves dominated Motegi, Power scored a third place finish, his first podium run on an oval.

But the bad news was that Franchitti had outplaced him in each of those three races. His win at Chicago was a huge factor in the championship - it allowed him to cut Power's points lead from 59 to 23. The lead sat at only 12 heading into the season finale at Homestead, meaning Power could only guarantee the title by winning the race. If Franchitti won from pole and led the most laps, even a second place finish would take the title from Power by a single point.

Power qualified a respectable third, but Franchitti set a blistering pole speed to cut the points lead to 11. By lap 124 of the 200 lap event, he had already secured two more bonus points by leading the most laps in the race. It was clear that Power was going to have to win the race to win the title.

Then, all hope was lost - while trying to negotiate past Hunter-Reay in a turn, Power brushed the outside wall. He brought the car back to the pits, where it was discovered that the damage to his right rear suspension was terminal. Power finished 25th and lost the championship by five points, the closest margin since 2006's tie by Sam Hornish Jr. and Dan Wheldon.

Regardless of the bad luck to finish the season, Power set some performance standards that even Franchitti would be hard-pressed to top. Only once did Power fail to qualify in the top five all season; he started seventh at Kansas. His eight poles are a new IndyCar record for most in a season. And his 412 of a possible 477 points on road courses are a marker which may never again be approached - unless Power is even better in 2011.

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