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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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