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Will Power ready to return to IndyCar championship form

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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 

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994