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INDYCAR

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.”

Watch the Indy 500 on May 26 on NBC

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.’”

Eli Tomac’s near-perfect season ended perfectly

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From the start, Eli Tomac wanted to go into the season-ending race at Ironman Raceway with the 2020 red plate already in his possession. That final race has been know to devolve into muddy conditions and it is best not to leave things to chance.

For a rider with an almost perfect record of overall podium finishes, one would not have thought there would be much drama at the end of Round 11 at Budds Creek, but it took until the last lap of the final moto for Tomac to achieve his goal.

One reason was that Tomac’s near-perfect season was not so perfect. From the very beginning at Hangtown, Tomac struggled with poor starts to his events. Getting a bad jump out of the gate and finishing fourth in Moto 1 that weekend was not the auspicious beginning he wanted in search of his third consecutive 450 outdoor championship.

The hallmark of Tomac’s season has been overcoming bad starts. He rode through the field at Hangtown and nearly stood on the podium. Then he won Moto 2 and finished second overall. It was his first of nine consecutive overall podiums. Tomac came back the following week for a perfect sweep at Pala.

In Round 3, Tomac once again got off to a bad start. He finished fifth in Moto 1 at Thunder Valley – and then won Moto 2 in a duplication of his opening round.

In Round 5, Tomac had his worst performance until that time. He finished seventh in Moto 1. Nearly halfway through the season, a pattern was firmly established with his Moto 2 win.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

One should recall that the hallmark of Tomac’s season was strong finishes. Four the next four weeks Tomac failed to podium only one time in a moto. On that occasion, he would stumble in Moto 2 at Spring Creek in Round 8 before scoring his second perfect race at Washougal.

And that is where it got interesting. Tomac left Washougal with a 50-point advantage over Marvin Musquin. It was just the scenario Tomac had seesawed his way through the season to achieve. But it was too good to be true.

In most of his previous bad performances, there was an extenuating circumstance for Tomac’s bad start: a fall or an off course excursion. This time, he simply rode an uninspired race and finished seventh again to match his worst single moto performance. He could not fully rebound in Moto 2 and finished third.

For the first time in 2019, Tomac failed to stand on the overall podium in fourth. Worse still, he lost 10 points to Musquin and no longer had his one-race cushion.

But this is a season of recovery for Tomac. At Budds Creek last week it was reported that Tomac’s lackluster performance in Washington was due to his overdoing his chores on his Colorado ranch. Rested and restored, Tomac scored his third perfect race with Moto 1 & 2 wins. And this time, he looked sharper than he had in any previous race.

Tomac did all the could do by winning both motos, but in the closing laps at Budds Creek he needed a little help to clinch the title. As it turned out, Tomac needed the perfect performance to clinch his third consecutive championship.

In Moto 1, he narrowly edged Ken Roczen and Musquin, to give the three championship contenders a sweep of the top three spots; that was not enough to regain his cushion.

Roczen was close enough to force Tomac into The Ironman needing to score points to permanently affix the red plate on his Kawasaki in 2020, but just as Tomac’s season has been marked by second half improvements, Roczen’s has been marred by a lack of performance in the second motos.

Musquin passed Roczen late in Moto 2 last week and could have extended the drama one more week if he could have caught second-place Jason Anderson. Musquin could not erase an 11-second deficit to the runner-up and now Tomac’s almost perfect season has a distinctly perfect feel to it.

Vanessa O’Brien, Kawasaki USA

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