Will Power may have his best Verizon IndyCar title shot yet in 2014

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There are few things in the Verizon IndyCar Series more scintillating to watch than Will Power on a qualifying lap.

For four full years, and an additional handful of starts in 2009 before that, Power has racked up 27 career pole positions while driving the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske entry.

Of course there is more to the 33-year-old Australian besides his qualifying pace. He’s one of the series’ best racers, and has quickly morphed into one of the best sound bites with his dry humor often a highlight of any media availability (or describing Christmas in his native Toowoomba, Australia).

Yet ultimately, while Power has long been IndyCar’s fastest driver, he’s still yet to be its finest.

Three successive runner-up finishes in the championship from 2010 through 2012 left Power to ponder the missed opportunities over the long, excruciating offseason.

Then 2013 happened, where Power found himself out of title contention by July, and could afford to take more chances and just do his thing without extra pressure.

What followed was a tour de force in the final five races of the year, with three wins and a potential fourth at Baltimore that went begging after contact with sparring partner Scott Dixon after a restart.

It’s not lost on Power that that different mentality was a welcome change of pace, and should have him ready to continue that assault into 2014.

“Yeah, I have to say I was a lot more relaxed in racing situations,” Power said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I had spent three years being very conservative, feeling the points. Actually taught me you just need to race hard no matter what. At the end of the year, it was fun. You can just race hard, it does not matter. In fact, the results came a lot better when I did that.”

Wins at Sonoma and Houston weren’t surprises, but a dominant performance on the oval at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana to cap off the year was a hugely satisfying result.

Entering 2014, Power has whatever momentum he gained from the finish of 2013 to take into the new year. He dominated preseason testing at Barber, again. And he’ll of course start as favorite for qualifying in St. Petersburg – he’s scored four straight poles there the last four years.

While he’s started up front, he’s only once been able to convert that into a win, back in 2010. Last year he had his race compromised in one of the year’s most bizarre incidents, when Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand crashed into him under a yellow flag.

To hear Power tell it, he should have never fallen back into that position to begin with.

“I think if I raced harder at St. Petersburg, Helio would have never had gotten me around the outside, and (JR) would have never ran over me,” he said.

But overall, Power looks back at 2013 and admits the race craft was something he was able to improve.

“It taught me a lot about racing, getting in the pack,” he said. “When you spend a lot of time at the front, the restarts, you’re not in the pack. I feel that my race craft was really good by the end and I enjoyed it.”

As it was, Power was the year’s top qualifier anyway with a 4.3 average, and a series-leading seven appearances in nine Firestone Fast Six sessions.

The work being done by Power and his Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and new recruit Juan Pablo Montoya this offseason has been done in Sebring, Sonoma, Fontana and Barber. As Montoya gets re-acclimated back to open-wheel racing, Power has led the team’s development charge this winter.

“We’ve had a couple test days with the three cars. Actually found some pretty good stuff,” Power said. “I feel as though we’re going to be pretty competitive. Kind of just working hard, not leaving anything on the table, not leaving anything to chance. You just can’t be lazy. You’ve got to work hard in this game if you want to continually be competitive. So that’s our plan.”

Power can always be considered a championship favorite going into the year, but the strength of depth within IndyCar provides no guarantees.

At one point in 2013, he was as low as 17th in the points standings. He rebounded to fourth by the end of the year on the strength of his torrid finish.

“It just taught me not to think about points, but to just race hard and enjoy it,” Power said. “A lot of teams now are really compressed. There’s no one that sticks out. Obviously Ganassi was strong on the road and street courses last year. Every off-season, all these small teams, including us, you close the gap. The gap gets smaller and smaller.

“It’s a different series or different intensity of competition, you could say, to what it was two or three years ago,” he added. “It’s really ramped up. No one just takes all the poles. It’s quite difficult to get a pole, let alone get in the Fast Six now, which is great. It’s a good, tough series.”

And in this good, tough series, it would only be a surprise if Power isn’t racking up more poles, winning races and contending once again for his first title.

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Friday notebook

Photo: Tony DiZinno
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INDIANAPOLIS – Teams have loaded in for this weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, with testing set all day on Saturday and Sunday for all three rungs of the series: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Some notes from the day are below.

  • Pabst Racing has been busy with testing its new Tatuus PM-18 in recent weeks, to add to its trio of USF-17s. The team has two PM-18 chassis with one completed and built up, and which Calvin Ming will test this weekend. Augie Pabst’s Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team won the team championship in USF2000 this season.
  • Look for Ayla Agren to test Pabst’s PM-18 next week for several days. The talented Indianapolis-based Norwegian/Swede is a past F1600 champion and has raced in parts of the last three USF2000 seasons with Team Pelfrey and John Cummiskey Racing; Agren is working on stepping up into Pro Mazda next season.
  • Another intriguing Pabst USF2000 product this weekend is New Zealander Hunter McElrea, a 17-year-old go-kart veteran who completed his first season of car racing this year in Australian Formula Ford. He was unlucky to only end fourth in the year’s championship, with several poles and wins but a bit of inconsistency that cost him the title. His father, Andy McElrea, has been in the U.S. before moving back home, where he’s enjoyed success as a driver, engineer and team director. The younger McElrea said he “learned heaps” this year and is optimistic of building a budget to come Stateside in 2018, and said it was a bit surreal to have his first real run at IMS. Born in the U.S., McElrea holds both U.S. and New Zealand dual citizenship.
  • Arguably the busiest driver in the month or so since the Watkins Glen season finale has been Dutchman Rinus VeeKay, who’s had several Pro Mazda tests with three different teams (Pabst, Juncos Racing and Exclusive Autosport) and will run this weekend with Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights, and will work with engineer Kent Boyer. VeeKay would succeed in North America for a second year, as he contemplates whether to move up from USF2000 into Pro Mazda or emulate RC Enerson in going from USF2000 straight to Indy Lights. VeeKay’s No. 4 car was Shelby Blackstock’s chassis from the 2017 season.
  • Teammate Nico Jamin, who was busy with several different types of cars this year besides his primary role in Indy Lights, will test Belardi’s No. 5 car, which was Santiago Urrutia’s chassis, and work with engineer Tim Neff. Jamin got the call a couple weeks ago and has come back from his home country of France, where he’s been since shortly after the season ended.
  • The third Belardi car, the No. 9 car still in the Mazda “soul red” livery for 2016 Pro Mazda champion Aaron Telitz, is on site this weekend. Telitz will test with RJB Motorsports’ USF2000 team – the car having been returned from ArmsUp Motorsports for this test – and the Birchwood, Wis. native will have the chance to work with open-wheel veterans Alex Barron and Mirl Swan as part of RJB’s crew. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Telitz also running in other cars and series this weekend.
  • At least for this test, Cape Motorsports’ Pro Mazda car has a cool “magic 8 ball” livery for Oliver Askew. The primarily black with some white paint scheme probably wouldn’t stay that way provided Mazda’s scholarship comes with the switch to a “soul red” livery once the season properly commences.
  • Jake Craig, who will test with Newman Wachs Racing this test, has been awarded the eKartingNews.com Karting Entry Ticket for this year’s Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout. The 19-year-old native of Mission Viejo, Calif. is the 12th driver who has a confirmed ticket so far for the shootout, which takes place in December in Arizona.
  • Colton Herta is in a funny spot with regards to World Series preference depending on whether the New York Yankees or Houston Astros wins tonight’s Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, as the Yankees lead the series 3-2 heading into tonight’s game and look to advance to the World Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers. Herta grew up a Dodgers fan but his Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing team features team principal George Michael Steinbrenner IV, son of Hank Steinbrenner, and the Steinbrenners of course are the Yankees’ principal owners. Perhaps it’s a good problem to have?
  • Myles Rowe, who’s won three races in six starts in the Lucas Oil School of Racing, will be in one of John Cummiskey Racing’s Tatuus USF-17 chassis this weekend. The Smyrna, Ga. native has a good head on his shoulders and could well impress.