Will Power once again in position for IndyCar title – but this time feels different

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The two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California is a place of both heartbreak and triumph for Team Penske driver Will Power.

Power entered the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale at ACS as the championship leader and was looking to finally capture the series title after near-misses in 2010 and 2011.

But Power ran over a seam in the track and crashed on Lap 55. His crew was able to make repairs and have him get on the track to run 11 more laps, but that didn’t stop Ryan Hunter-Reay from claiming the championship with a fourth-place finish.

One year later, Power returned to Fontana but not as a title threat. Still, he was on a late-season tear with wins on the road course at Sonoma and the streets of Houston.

But those victories paled in comparison when Power was able to hold off Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan on a late restart to take the checkered flag at ACS.

Even if you had the race on mute in your living room, the look of jubilation on Power’s face in Victory Lane was enough to tell how much that one meant to him.

“It’s the most satisfying win of my life,” the normally laid-back Power declared. “That is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, and I wanted to do it so badly all year.”

The more you look back on it, the more you believe that night was a career-changer for him.

Long known as perhaps the most dominant road/street course racer in IndyCar, Power’s reputation on the ovals was nowhere near as pristine at the time. But at the place where he suffered perhaps the cruelest of his three championship defeats, he was able to dust two of the series’ best oval aces.

And you can’t help but think that moment has led us to where we are now.

With another season finale at ACS coming up this Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra), Power leads this year’s championship by 51 points over teammate Helio Castroneves after having claimed three wins, seven podiums, and an average finish of 6.3 in the season’s first 17 races.

The matter is far from settled, of course. Double points will be in play for this 500-mile finale, giving Castroneves – who, like Power, is also chasing his first series title – an opportunity.

And, of course, we’ve seen Power falter in this situation before.

In 2010, Power was up 12 points on Dario Franchitti going into the season finale at Homestead, only to make contact with the wall that was severe enough to put him out of the race after 143 laps. Franchitti finished eighth and won the title by five points.

Power and Franchitti were again mixing it up for the title in 2011, but in the next-to-last race of the year at Kentucky, pit road contact with Ana Beatriz helped relegate Power to an 19th-place finish.

Franchitti finished second, took the points lead from Power, and ultimately won the title when the finale at Las Vegas was cancelled after the massive early crash that took Dan Wheldon’s life.

Then came Fontana 2012, and Power’s third title disaster.

If you need to actually see Power hang on and win the 2014 crown this Saturday night in order to believe he’s a champion, you can’t necessarily be blamed.

But this fourth attempt by the Australian sure feels like the one that’s going to finally end in success.

A big part of that belief, at least from my perspective, comes from the leap in confidence he’s clearly taken since winning at Fontana last year.

No doubt that confidence helped him in recovering from his mid-race spin yesterday at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Power had been dominating the race up to that point, but despite dropping all the way to 20th after the spin, he managed to push himself up to a 10th-place finish (ninth on the track; he lost one spot for passing Justin Wilson under a local yellow at the very end).

Instead of having Castroneves cut into his points lead, Power was able to increase it. Said advantage could have been much bigger had he not had his spin, but every championship season needs at least one of those kinds of drives Power put on.

Power could have crumbled after his mistake. Instead, he was unflappable.

And if he can keep a cool head again over 500 miles on Saturday night, he’ll finally be The Man in perhaps the most competitive racing series in the world.

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.