St. Pete flashback: A new Power emerges in 2009

2 Comments

Next Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series season-opener will mark the 10th anniversary of that series’ version of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (and the 11th St. Pete open-wheel race overall, counting Champ Car’s 2003 event there).

Over the last decade, we’ve seen some memorable moments as the event has evolved into one of the series’ signature races. One of those started in a time of uncertainty for one of the sport’s biggest stars but ultimately resulted in a new member of IndyCar’s core nucleus of drivers.

In the fall of 2008, Helio Castroneves and his sister were charged with tax evasion and were forced to face a trial in Miami, which would cause the then two-time Indianapolis 500 winner to miss the start of the 2009 season.

Before the trial began, Team Penske had made the decision to bring in Australian driver Will Power to replace Castroneves in the No. 3 machine in the interim.

Power had shown flashes of his ultimate potential with a pair of Champ Car victories in 2007 and a triumph in the series’ finale at Long Beach in 2008.

He had landed at KV Racing Technology following the reunification of the sport, but the chance to drive for the legendary Team Penske – even in a part-time role – was one he couldn’t turn down.

With Castroneves tending to his legal problems, Power drove his No. 3 in the ’09 season opener at St. Petersburg and overcame both a pit road miscue and late contact to finish in sixth place, while then-teammate Ryan Briscoe won the race.

“I think we were on par to have a pretty good strategy today, but just as we pulled in for our first pit stop we had some bad luck with that yellow,” Power said that day. “Plus, I sort of made it hard on our guys by pulling into the wrong pit, but I hung in there and made sure I stayed out of trouble and kept progressing throughout the day.

“I think considering everything that happened out there, bringing the Team Penske car home in sixth is great.”

Power’s efforts ultimately led to more races that year with Penske, including the next one at Long Beach, which saw Castroneves return to the team after being acquitted of his charges.

Despite being moved to a new car – the No. 12 – Power still won the pole and converted it to a runner-up finish at the Beach. Later that year, he pulled off a victory at Edmonton before he suffered season-ending injuries in a practice crash at Sonoma that August.

But he’d done enough. Power was added to the Penske ranks full-time for the 2010 season. And the rest was history.

Since that point, he’s earned 17 more Verizon IndyCar Series victories and has become one of the series’ regular title contenders.

NBCSN begins its coverage of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 13. CLICK HERE for the full broadcast schedule.

F1: Lewis Hamilton chases history at US Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton is closing in on the F1 championship. Getty Images
Leave a comment

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — From New York to Texas, Lewis Hamilton returned to the United States this week with yet another Formula One championship ready for the taking.

Finish off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once and for all at the U.S. Grand Prix this weekend and the British driver would climb another step among racing’s greatest drivers. A fifth season championship would tie him with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio for second all-time behind only Germany’s Michael Schumacher, who won seven.

Hamilton storms into what could be a chilly, rainy Texas weekend with a commanding 67-point lead over Vettel heading into the last four races of 2018. If Hamilton wins Sunday, Vettel has to finish no lower than second to keep the championship going another week to Mexico City. Any Hamilton finish that leaves him eight points or more clear of Vettel clinches the title.

Yet facing constant reminders of what’s at stake, Hamilton refused to get dragged into talking about his place in F1 history.

“None of us are saying how cool it would be. We are not focusing on `ifs.’ We are focusing on making sure we deliver,” Hamilton said Thursday. “We expect Ferrari to punch back hard here this weekend.”

Others were happy to do it for him.

McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, sitting next to Hamilton in the drivers’ news conference, ranked Hamilton among his top five champions in F1 history, no small compliment considering Alonso won championships in 2005 and 2006.

“Lewis showed talent from day one fighting for the championship his rookie year, then winning in 2008,” Alonso said. “He was able to win races when the car deserved to win it, but he was able to win races in seasons when the car wasn’t in top form … It’s impressive.”

If he’s feeling any pressure about the weekend, Hamilton isn’t showing it.

He spent the first part of the week in New York with an appearance on “Good Morning America” and a trip to Times Square to see his image on one of the towering video boards. On Thursday, he cracked jokes about fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby from the movie “Talladega Nights,” quipped about his love of American pancakes and talked up a Circuit of the Americas track that brings out his racing instincts.

“They really don’t make tracks like they did in the old days. Some of the new tracks really aren’t that good. This is one that is,” Hamilton said. “You can actually race here. I’ve had the chance to race here. Real races.”

Hamilton has dominated this track since it opened in 2012, winning five times and starting from the pole or second each time he won. He won the inaugural race with McLaren and his victory in the rain with Mercedes in 2015 clinched the season championship (his third). He comes back to Austin having won six of the last seven races this season, a streak interrupted only by Vettel’s victory in Belgium back on Aug. 26.

With 100 points still available, Vettel is still mathematically alive in the championship but would need a run of Ferrari victories and a historic collapse by Hamilton and Mercedes to win it. And it has to start this week.

The German is the only driver to beat Hamilton in Austin. That came in 2013 during his dominant season with Red Bull that won Vettel his fourth championship. Last year, Vettel led after the start but Hamilton easily reeled him in and passed on lap 14 and the Ferrari never threatened an easy Hamilton victory.

The circuit won’t quite be the same. Race officials installed new kerbs on turns 1, 16 and 17 to keep the cars from running off track. Vettel snatched the lead at the start last year when Hamilton forced him left but he was able to cut the corner and head downhill.

The 2017 race ended in controversy when Red Bull’s Max Verstappen passed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen around turns 16 and 17 on the final lap to finish third. Race officials determined it was an illegal overtake because all four of Verstappen’s wheels left the track and a 5-second penalty knocked him off the podium.