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Will Power: Mr. IndyCar Grand Prix

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INDIANAPOLIS – In 1970, famed innovator and marketing genius Andy Granatelli wrote a book entitled, “They Call Me, Mr. 500.” He was the genius behind the famed STP Turbine and prior to that, the thunderous Novi engine. Granatelli was the winning car owner for Mario Andretti when he won his only Indianapolis 500 in 1969.

Fifty years later, maybe they should call Team Penske’s Will Power “Mr. IndyCar Grand Prix.”

There are only two drivers who have won the 85-lap race on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural IndyCar Grand Prix in 2014 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and again in 2016 with Team Penske. Power has won the IndyCar Grand Prix three times, including the past two years from the pole.

“I love the track,” Power told NBC Sports.com. “It’s probably my favorite road course in the whole series. It’s so fun. It’s very technical. It’s nice. It’s smooth. It’s fun, fun.

“I like it because of how smooth it is, and the style is very European. It’s a technical track where every complex rolls into the next. It’s right up my alley.”

Of his three wins in the IndyCar GP, Power said last year’s win was the most difficult because of fuel strategy. He had to save fuel while holding off a charging Scott Dixon.

“At that time, we were not getting very good fuel mileage, and I had to be very quick, hold off Scott Dixon and save a big, big number,” Power said. “I did both and was very exhausted after that race.

“That was tough.”

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Starting on the pole in this particular race is important because the long front straight features a wide entrance to a tight, right-hand Turn 1. That turn becomes a funnel, and mayhem often ensues at the start of the IndyCar GP.

The pole winner can be ahead of the mayhem, and that can be the key to victory.

When it comes to keys to victory in the IndyCar GP, Power needs a very large key ring.

“You get those tracks that you just fall in love with since Day One,” Team Penske IndyCar general manager Kyle Moyer told NBCSports.com. “The second-best guy there is Simon Pagenaud, and they both drive for us.

“Everybody has a good track that they really love. Alexander Rossi has become the new ‘King of Long Beach’ where it used to be Al Unser, Jr. Will Power is the King of Indy GP. Scott Dixon was the King of Watkins Glen.

“It’s fallen where Will Power is the ‘King of the IndyCar Grand Prix.’ As long as it stays like that, he is comfortable there.”

There are many reasons why Power is so good at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. When he arrived at Team Penske, first as a fill-in for Helio Castroneves during his tax evasion trial in 2009 and then as a full-time driver beginning in 2010, Power has been IndyCar’s “King of the Road.”

Twenty-eight of Power’s 35 career IndyCar wins have come on road and street circuits.

Of those road courses, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course is his best.

INDYCAR Photo“He knows what he wants there typically, and it has worked for us in the past,” David Faustino, Power’s race engineer at Team Penske, told NBC Sports.com. “It is one of those tracks where he is certain where he thinks the car should be and the compromises that track holds. The fact it’s a short format weekend is good because he has usually been able to sort that out pretty quickly, especially last year with a new package.

“All of those things combined make it a track he has been successful at.”

With four wins in the five previous IndyCar GPs, combined with a record 17 wins in the Indianapolis 500, it’s fair to say that this is a “Penske track.”

“Last year as a team, we were pretty strong on the natural road courses, like Barber and the Indy Road Course,” Faustino said. “This year, it seems like everybody has caught up with us. The Honda teams have tested there, and the Chevy teams didn’t. It will be a lot more challenging this year.

“We need to keep our heads on straight and get there during qualifying.”

Because road courses are not as unpredictable as street courses, it’s harder to pass because drivers don’t make as many mistakes. That is one reason why on the natural terrain road courses, the driver who starts on the pole appears to have an advantage and can lead most of the laps.

“The car has a lower downforce level, so when you are in clean air, it’s easier to be fast and it is an equalizer in traffic,” Faustino explained. “The longer road courses, the leader doesn’t run into traffic as much. It is easier and that is what we hear on the longer tracks.

“The leader always has a target on their back, though. If you are the leader and have one or two guys that can hang on to you, you have a feeling you are not in as much control because the car behind you can save more fuel because they are sucked in hour two. You can’t make decisions based on who is behind you.”

In 2018, Power was both “Mr. IndyCar Grand Prix” and “Mr. Indy 500” as he became the first driver to win both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same year.

“That was a great accomplishment, and it almost happened in 2015,” Power said. “I love superspeedways now. I love them, enjoy them and know what the car wants and feels. It’s a month I really look forward to.”

The only thing Power did not claim at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May was the pole for the Indy 500. That went to Ed Carpenter for the third time in his career.

Power started third and led 59 laps to win the Indy 500 for the first time in 11 starts.

“That was pretty amazing,” Faustino recalled. “It was a career highlight for him and for the whole team. We are going back there to do that again. It seems improbable, but we put the same effort into everything we do.

“If things pan out, it’s possible again. If Chevy brings the same power to the table, we can do it again.

“We’re going to go for it.”

The IndyCar Grand Prix is not the Indianapolis 500, but it’s still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the “Month of May” and that makes it pretty cool.

Especially for Will Power.

“This month showcases what IndyCar is all about,” Power said. “It’s still very cool. I’m very glad this race is part of the ‘Month of May.’”

Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

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“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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