DiZinno: Not only is Road America back, but so too is Will Power

Photo: IndyCar

The upshot of Road America’s return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule was a big enough story this weekend, but the on-track story that emerged following the weekend was another big return.

Will Power is officially back, folks.

The 2014 series champion is starting to look like the Power of old, the Australian who stormed through the 2010 and 2011 seasons with eight poles each year, and 11 combined wins (five in 2010, six in 2011) although he came up just short of the title in each instance.

Because it’s become harder to win races since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012, such a level of domination as Power did those two years has been hard to see.

Since 2012, no driver has won more than four races in a season. Series champions Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon won four each in 2012 and 2013 while Power and Dixon have won three each, each of the last two years, to win the respective title.

Although Power’s only won two in a row now in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, he’s done so for the first time since 2013 in the same season, when he won the last two races of the year at Houston race two and then Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, a memorable oval triumph where he comprehensively waxed the field.

As Power reflected in the post-race press conference, because it is so hard to win now, and win regularly, wins mean so much more.

“It’s super satisfying,” he explained after winning Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, his 27th career victory.

“The races have been very green this year, and I was just so pissed off that I wasn’t fit enough to qualify like I normally do. I wasn’t where I needed to be. It wasn’t really a fitness thing I guess in qualifying so much, but there’s so many times that we should have challenged for pole but we made a mistake or got traffic or got a penalty, and a lot of those races were green, so we lost a lot of points there.

“But there was a point in the season where I just felt like I couldn’t use my talent, when you don’t quite have the energy to do it, but now I do, so you start getting into the flow of things and feel like you’re a challenge every weekend to win.”

The fact he is here, now, looking like that crazy-eyed assassin who took no prisoners and was IndyCar’s fastest driver for several years stems largely from a huge comeback on the health front that sees Power back to full strength.

Power’s nightmare St. Petersburg weekend followed a similarly challenging Phoenix test, where he didn’t fully seem himself. The St. Petersburg weekend ended with the inner ear infection and his being ruled out of competition after qualifying on Saturday, with Oriol Servia filling in for the race.

“It’s finally back to my normal fitness level, and just the way I do things,” he said. “Obviously the start of the year was very tough for me. I couldn’t train in the off-season. Didn’t do the first race, so my fitness really — I usually turn up for the season very fit. This year I turned up way off where I normally am. I’ve got my normal energy back and I can perform like I normally do, and that’s the difference.

“I had some health problems in the off-season, so I couldn’t train,” he continued. “Some of that was some food allergy stuff and a couple of other things. But it’s just slowly building myself back up so I could do my normal regime. I haven’t changed anything the way I exercise, it’s just being able to do it, and then having car fitness.

“Yeah, then diet played a role in that. Suddenly I couldn’t eat certain foods. It really, really destroyed me.”

Power’s win Sunday came courtesy, in large part, of saving enough push-to-passes to hold off Tony Kanaan’s advances. Still, he was in a league of his own most of the weekend on pace, scoring pole, leading 46 of 50 laps and securing maximum points.

“If we had to push, we could, pull the lead, and then we’d save fuel like we wanted to at the first stint and did everything we needed to do to win the race basically.

“That was everything I had because he had reds, new reds, and he was coming fast. But I’d saved Push-to-Pass for that reason, because I knew if there’s a late restart, you want to have a lot of Push-to-Pass because it’s such a huge gain here.

Now back fully on firm, talk will turn to whether Power is a legitimate championship contender.

He is, but at 81 points back, he’ll still need further stumbles from points leader, teammate and erstwhile dominant driver Simon Pagenaud to close the gap. The fact Pagenaud’s lead over Helio Castroneves is still 74 points despite having three finishes of 13th or worse in four races means no one has closed a huge chunk.

Still, it’s not impossible for Power by a long shot, as he’s already shot up from outside the top 10 to third in points.

Just in this one race, Power already gained 36 points on Pagenaud. One or two more of those swings could have Pagenaud properly concerned.

Power’s memorable “I’m out of it on points, so I’m just driving to drive” moments have occurred in the past, notably in that end to the 2013 season, and at times last year even though he was still mathematically in the hunt down to the season finale at Sonoma.

“If you look at the points situation, obviously things can change so quickly. You look at the last race, there can be something like an 80 or 90-point swing if the guy you’re racing has a bad day and you win. And then you’ve got seven more races. It’s just so many points left and so much to happen.

“Obviously Pagenaud has had a very good-flowing season up to this point, but that doesn’t continue, it never does.

“You always — you have your good runs, it goes in cycles, and we’re very determined from here on out. We want to be there at the end. We want to win the championship, simple as that.”

He’s in the frame, and most certainly, he’s back to the Will Power we want to see properly contending for wins at the front of the field.