Resiliency, consistency helps deliver Will Power his elusive first IndyCar title

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In a Verizon IndyCar Series paddock that features some great personalities – even if they’re more reserved and mild-mannered on camera than they are once you get to know them as the circus travels cross-country week-to-week – Will Power stands out as much for his quirks as his on-track prowess.

Until Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway though, misperceptions of Power included being known more as “the double bird guy,” “that guy with the funny name” and “the non-oval driver.”

But there was a serious word that Power needed to shake from the arsenal, or the narrative, and it wasn’t going to leave until he finally bagged that elusive first championship: choking.

That overlooks another, less discussed word that has actually been a greater hallmark and tendency throughout his racing career: resiliency.

Power was a then-unheralded driver from the World Series by Renault ranks when he made his first Champ Car start in a third Aussie Vineyards-backed entry for Derrick Walker at his home race, Surfers’ Paradise in 2005.

As he grew throughout 2006 and 2007, and won his first two races in the latter season, Power lost his ride as the Champ Car-IndyCar merger occurred. The sponsor shifted to KV Racing and when Walker’s team didn’t make it into IndyCar, Power moved over to KV.

He stood at another crossroads in 2009 when the sponsor departed altogether, but found a new chance with Team Penske first as a fill-in for Helio Castroneves and then in a part-time third car. Power maximized his opportunity with a pole and podium at Long Beach, his first race with Verizon Wireless on the car, then fifth at the Indianapolis 500 and a win in Edmonton.

He hit another setback. He suffered two fractured vertebrae and a concussion in a practice accident at Sonoma, but Power wasn’t knocked down. He was rewarded with a third full-time entry to Team Penske in 2010, fully backed by Verizon, and with an opportunity to ascend within the Penske hierarchy.

Yes, he missed out on championships in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012, all in dramatic and fairly unfortunate circumstances.

Still, it spoke volumes of how fast and talented he was that he’d consistently put himself in position to win the title in the first place. He just needed to become a bit more well-rounded. Sooner or later, the breaks had to go his way.

He survived an up-and-down 2013 that ended with more ups, particularly his 2013 Fontana race win, with a return for the go-for-broke style that served him well instead of a more cautious approach.

“Yeah, I think the fact that I wasn’t in the championship chase made me realize how aggressive I truly could be,” Power said Saturday night, when reflecting on last year.

“And I got back to how I raced when I was young which is attack, not be conservative. I think the three championships we lost was me kind of on being conservative in certain situations.

“And now I just feel like I’ve raced naturally. And it was a change, just because I was put in the position not to protect the points lead.”

He’s raced naturally in 2014, but again, he’s been resilient throughout the year.

This was a point illustrated by NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell in Saturday night’s pre-race show. In-season, Power made several mistakes, and accrued several penalties, but managed to turn something out of all of them.

At Barber, he went off course on a damp track early and lost the lead. He still ended fifth. He hit pit equipment at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and was eighth. He sped in the pits in the Indianapolis 500… and again was eighth.

Despite his first lap contact with several cars in Detroit race two, he was still second. There was another pit road speeding penalty at Texas, and again, a rebound to second.

The Pocono block netted his worst finish in this run of 10th. Toronto race one, he spun in the rain, but due to fortuitous circumstances of the race date changing and his crew’s rebuild, he still ended ninth. Even at Sonoma, he recovered from his spin to 10th.

In no instant did the crazy-eyed Aussie lose it on track to where he took himself out of the race. He finished in the top-10 despite every one of those setbacks; on the whole, he only failed to complete one lap this season. That consistency spoke volumes about how well-rounded he’d become as a whole this year.

And of course, the last three weeks of the year encapsulated Will Power’s career in a nutshell.

There was the crushing dominance at Milwaukee. Then setback at Sonoma.

But this time, finally, there was resilience rather than defeat in the season finale.

“Yeah, it hasn’t sunk in that I’ve actually finally won the championship. I got a lot of questions before the race. And I just try to keep everything else out,” he said in the Fontana press conference.

“It was kind of weird. Didn’t even think about the process of the race or anything. Just was two weeks of not much sleep and stress and all that sort of stuff. Keeping my wife up at night. And just when I got in that race car just kept my mind on the job, focused and this is the result.”

The win allowed the other thing Power’s known for – his quirks – to shine through during an epic, off-the-wall, completely scatterbrained and simply perfect championship speech during the IndyCar championship celebration Sunday night.

Let’s face it. If anyone other than Power had lost his place in the speech, joking about Verizon, asking the teleprompter guy to scroll up or down, or forget his wife, Liz, you’d think they were a nutcase who shouldn’t be up there in the first place.

But because it was Will, it was so fitting, and just the right tone to cap off the 2014 season.

One where Power’s resiliency ended the choking narrative, on the way to his first series championship.

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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