Third-place finish at Phoenix a good start for Will Power after missing St. Pete

(Getty Images)

After missing the Verizon IndyCar Series season opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida, due to an inner-ear infection, Will Power was poised for a big comeback at Phoenix.

And that’s exactly what the Team Penske driver got, finishing third, right behind teammate and new points leader Simon Pagenaud.

All four Penske drivers finished in the top 11 in IndyCar’s return to the Valley of the Sun since 2005, although both Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves needed to fight back from right front tire issues.

“I’m very happy to finish the race in third,” he said during the post-race media conference Saturday night. “You know, it’s gravy. It’s my first race of the season, so I’m very happy with that.”

Power was ranked 23rd in the standings heading to Phoenix (50 points behind then-series leader Montoya) with just one point earned, by virtue of capturing the St. Pete pole before bowing out on race morning.

Now, after the second race of the season and Power’s first of 2016, he’s rocketed up the standings to 12th position with 36 points, tied with Josef Newgarden.

It’s a net gain of only three points to the leader – now Pagenaud instead of Montoya – as Power finds himself 47 points back.

Still, earning his best finish since he was runner-up to Montoya at Indianapolis last year, Power remains optimistic that he can continue to chip away and get closer to the series leaders in the remaining 14 races on the schedule.

“It’s a long season,” Power said. “Obviously for me it’s just finishing tonight, and we’ll see as the season goes along.”

Admittedly, it was not a perfect race for Power at Phoenix, but his pit crew proved extremely valuable to keep him in contention with quick pit stops and great strategy.

And while other drivers had issues with their tires, Power said his ride was not significantly impacted.

“I was very nice on my tires because I knew you couldn’t pass, so why get so close,” he said. “I was aware that the more you punish it, the more chance you’re going to have of a big vibration. It’s not the tire that’s the problem. It’s the amount of downforce we have here. It’s too much, and that’s why we couldn’t pass, and that’s why the tires — some of the tires had vibrations.

“I didn’t honestly have a problem in the race with (tires). I’m not sure many people did. The tires were fine. The two problems (Penske teammates Montoya and Helio Castroneves had) were cut tires, so nothing you can do about that.”

Among the biggest keys at Phoenix, Power said, were not to get too caught up with worrying about missing St. Pete, but rather to just do his best at Phoenix, not worry about the championship and go from there.

“Just have fun with it, not really any pressure, and we’ll see what happens in the end,” he said of his strategy coming into Saturday’s race. “It’s a very long championship, and you’ve got a couple double-points races (at Belle Isle). I think I can crawl back.”

Power had a shot late in the race at Phoenix to potentially overtake his teammate and take second place, but the risk outweighed the reward in a sense.

“I could see Simon was struggling out of (turns) 3 and 4,” Power said. “I could definitely get around, but I was like, I’m not going to — unless it was a sure thing.

“There was no way I was going to take a risk with my teammate. It’s just not worth it. I just wanted to finish the race.”

And that he did. Now it’s on to the next race at Long Beach on April 17, where Power hopes to continue his uphill climb one step at a time.

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”