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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.”

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.’”

Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”