Will Power ready to return to IndyCar championship form

Jonathan Ferrey, Getty Images

MOORESVILLE, North Carolina – Any driver who can win two races, score six podiums, claim three poles and finish fifth in the NTT IndyCar Series standings has had a pretty good season.

For Will Power, who celebrated his 39th birthday Sunday, he considers those achievements subpar, at least by his standards.

The Team Penske driver from Toowoomba, Australia, has 37 career INDYCAR wins and 58 poles. Those records include two wins and six poles in the old Champ Car Series.

Power, who scored his only career NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2014, expects to challenge for race wins and championships on a regular basis. Last year, he believed he was out of the championship race before July.

Power found himself in that position because frankly, he couldn’t seem to catch a break.

“Yeah, it’s just nuts,” Power said. “I can’t tell you how many seasons I’ve had with bad starts. I used to have awesome starts. Sometimes, it just doesn’t flow your way. The biggest thing to learn is you can’t be thinking of points and never get in that situation.”

Power was on target to a fast start to the 2019 season with poles in each of the first two races. He finished third in the season opener at St. Petersburg and was dominating the IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas when he was in front for the first 45 laps.

As he was among the last cars to make a final pit stop in the 60-lap contest, the yellow flag waved because of a two-car crash involving Felix Rosenqvist and Graham Rahal in Turn 20. Power came into pit lane, but when he pulled out, the driveshaft broke on his No. 3 Chevrolet.

He went from first to worst in the 24-car race. He finished 11th at Barber, seventh at Long Beach and the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis. The 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner finished fifth in last year’s Indy 500 and when he finished 18th in the first of two races during the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, Power was stuck in sixth — as in points, not gear.

Power was able to turn around the disappointing season by learning from it.

The voice in Power’s ear last year was team owner Roger Penske. Now that Penske owns the IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500, he has stepped down from the timing stand to run the entire operation.

Team Penske Managing Director Ron Ruzewski, who manned the top step of Power’s timing stand on the days when Penske was not at the track, becomes Power’s fulltime strategist.

“I’ve had Ron in my ear for a few races, and he is in my ear for practice, so the transition will be really good,” Power said. “The fact he is the technical director and an engineer it is easier for (engineer) Dave Faustino to have a strategist who is also an engineer. They have worked together before. In practice sessions, he discusses engineering changes so that is a good situation.

“I think having that consistency this year will help. Ron will be there every race. Every session.”

The good news for Power last season was in spite of the problematic start, he finished with a flourish. Beginning with the Mid-Ohio contest at the end of July, Power finished fourth, first, 22nd, first and second in the final five races.

His victories came at Pocono Raceway and Portland. His second-place finish was in the season finale at the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

“We ended the season very strong, and got back in a good place,” Power said. “Not that I was in a bad place. Everything just started clicking like it just does sometimes.”

If Power gets off to a fast start in 2020, it will give him a completely new outlook – literally.

For the first time in his career, Power will be peering out of his cockpit through an aeroscreen. Power has been one of the test drivers in aeroscreen testing, and its earlier iterations, which IndyCar President Jay Frye announced the safety device in 2018.

This year, every car at every NTT IndyCar Series race will include an aeroscreen.

“The biggest thing is understanding what all that weight will do for the car,” Power said. “We are adding about 50-70 pounds and it will change the characteristic of the car quite a bit, especially on the fast corners. That is definitely a different animal.”

The car will definitely be different, and Power is confident a safer race car will benefit IndyCar.

“It’s definitely in the safest place it’s ever been,” Power said of the series. “Not only because of the windscreen, but also some other things that they’ll implement. I’m hoping they do pit speed limiters on aprons.

“But the fact we have only two superspeedways makes it safer. It reduces the percentage chance of bad accidents, because that’s where all the serious injuries have happened. We have short ovals. They’ve been generally reasonably safe. Obviously, you have road and street courses. It’s the superspeedways with just two of them. And the formula is safer. It’s not a pack race anymore.

“I would say from when I first started racing over here, it’s significantly safer. No matter what you’re doing that speed, things can happen. We saw in Formula 2 at Spa last year; things just can happen at those speeds. It’s never going to be completely safe.

“That’s a risk you take when you race anything.”

Power has accepted those risks throughout his career and not flinched. That has allowed him to accumulate some impressive numbers and close in on some records.

He is 10 poles away from Mario Andretti’s record of 67. That’s a number that entices the Australian.

“It’s just close enough to be far enough away to be annoying,” Power said. “It’s like right there. You just look at it and it gets tougher and tougher every year to get three or more poles, so it’s there.

“If they give me that one in Surfers. I deserve it. That’s a pole position and everyone was there. It’d be a cool one to get. A really cool one.”

Power is referring to the 2008 Nikon Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise on October 25, 2008. Although it featured the full field of IndyCar Series drivers, it was classified as an “exhibition race” because it was nearly two months after the 2008 IndyCar Series concluded at Chicagoland Speedway.

That was the year Champ Car and the old Indy Racing League joined forces to become today’s IndyCar Series. Chicagoland Speedway was contracted to be the series championship race that season.

As Power chases Andretti’s record for most poles, he has stayed race sharp by go-karting and working out. He has also been to the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina four times.

“Now that we have simulators, it doesn’t take that long to get the feel back for the race car,” Power said. “We have the Chevrolet Simulator in Huntersville and that is pretty darn good.

Of course, there is another goal that entices Power and every driver in the series. That is a win in the 104th Indianapolis 500.

Power experienced the glory by winning the 102nd Indy 500 in 2018. Does he feel any pressure knowing that his team owner now owns the Speedway?

“No,” Power said. “It’s just enough pressure with that race. Roger has won 18.

“It’s going to be 20 soon.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”