by Frank Santoroski

Milwaukee ”Oh Man! I love winning on ovals” was the elated cry over the radio as Will Power took a convincing win on the Milwaukee Mike two  weeks ago.

A year and a half ago, if you would have asked me to bet on Will Power at the Milwaukee Mile, I would have laughed out loud.  While the win on the historic track was Power’s 24th career win, it was only his third on a race course that did not feature right-hand turns.

Indeed, the intense efforts put forth by Power and the entire Verizon Team Penske crew on their oval program is now paying dividends.  The Milwaukee win is significant for the Australian driver in his quest to become the Verizon IndyCar Series Champion.  On a track that he was expected to stumble, he showed what he is made of and crushed the field taking a leap forward in the points standings.

With a 39-point lead coming into Sonoma, Power took pole position and reset the track record.  Sonoma is a track where Power has won three times.  After a dynamite start, he took early command of the race, pulling several seconds ahead of the field.  When he became mired in traffic following pit stops, he made an uncharacteristic mistake on a restart, taking a spin.  Luckily he managed to avoid contact with the other cars, but it dropped him to the rear of the field.

USP-IndyCar-Indianapolis-500-001It’s not exactly uncharacteristic of Will Power to make a mistake, that’s true.  But at Sonoma, he should have crushed the field as handily as he did at Milwaukee.  As fate would have it, his closest rival in the championship, Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, experienced problems early on in the race and was unable to capitalize on Power’s misfortune.

Despite the on-track troubles, Power managed to work his way up to a tenth place finish and extend his points lead to 51 going into the finale.   In the meantime, the three other driver with a shot at the title:  Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud took the top three spots at Sonoma closing their gap to Power.

And now, the million dollar question.  Can Will Power finally seal the deal and become the Verizon IndyCar Series Champion?

Three times in the past, he has come close and his dreams ended up in the wall on an oval track in the season finale.

In 2010, he was leading Dario Franchitti heading into the finale.  His day ended early in the wall at Homestead-Miami.

In 2011, Franchitti held a slim lead over Power coming into the season-ender.  He was caught up in the multi-car accident that claimed the life of Dan Wheldon leading to the cancellation of the race effectively handing the Cup to Franchitti.

AU1190760In 2012, Power was locked into a tight battle with Ryan Hunter-Reay heading into the 500 mile season finale at Fontana.  He crashed on  lap 66 of the 250 lap event and could only watch  from the sidelines as Hunter-Reay cruised to a fourth place finish taking the title.

Power’s 2013 season started off poorly and he was never in contention for the title.  In the finale at Fontana, Power took his first 500 mile oval win in a race marred with attrition.

With the confidence of returning to the Southern California track as the defending winner, Power’s chances look as good as ever.

Much has been made about the double-point structure in Fontana.  While there is a lot of talk about the available points at the top of the finishing order, it will be the points available at the bottom that will help Power in his quest.  With 22 cars in the field, Power will be assured of earning 16 points for just showing up.

The moment Will Power turns in a lap at the first practice, thus guaranteeing those last place points,  Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon will be instantly eliminated from the title chase.  That will leave Helio Castroneves with a legitimate shot at it, with Simon Pagenaud still alive and hoping for a bad day from both Penske cars.

07-11-Castroneves-On-Pitlane-StdIndeed, it is Power’s title to lose.  A sixth place finish from the Verizon crew will ensure the title.  A DNF will assure Castroneves and Pagenaud a glimpse of hope.

Don’t expect Helio Castroneves to roll over and play dead to give this thing to Will Power.  With three Indy 500 wins to his credit, Castroneves could hang up his helmet tomorrow and have nothing to be ashamed about.

At the same time, a season championship would mean the world to the popular driver.  Through two seasons of Indy Lights, four seasons of CART and thirteen seasons in The IndyCar Series he has five runner-up finishes and no titles.  Indeed, the only season title he has won since his karting days came on the reality TV program, Dancing with The Stars.  

While Power and Castroneves have been teamed together for four seasons, their interactions haven’t always been amicable with one another.  Castroneves will pull out all the stops to beat Power and won’t cut him any breaks.

2008-4-23-11popopo80790637While, I certainly feel that Will Power would be a deserving champion, there are many that disagree with me.  Power has that sort of polarizing personality that cause folks to either love him or hate him.  And, if you look through social media, it appears that his detractors are a louder bunch.

After coming up through the junior Formula ranks in his native Australia, Power debuted in the Champ Car series in 2005 with Derrick Walker Racing.  He took three wins in the series, including the final event ever sanctioned by ChampCar at Long Beach in 2008.  Effectively unemployed coming into 2009, he got a call from Roger Penske to be a fill-in for Helio Castroneves.  The Brazillian driver was involved in a legal scandal having to defend himself amidst accusations of tax evasion.

Once Castroneves was exonerated in the courtroom and returned to the cockpit, Penske entered Power in selected events.  Power took a win at Edmonton, and assured himself a full-time ride with The Captain for 2010.

iPowerBirdxSince then he has visited victory lane 20 times.  That number might be much higher were it not for a history of blocking penalties, accidents, and pit lane speeding violations.  He has had run-ins with other drivers and well-publicized harsh words with fellow competitors like Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Simon Pagenaud.  In 2010, Power became an instant internet Meme when he expressed his displeasure with race control after they made the bonehead decision to go green on a wet track on the New Hampshire oval.

A deserving champion? I say yes, but perhaps that is up for debate.

A colorful champion? No doubt in my mind.

Will he be the champion? Find out this coming weekend.

The MAV TV 500 from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana will take the green flag on Saturday Night, August 30 at 9:00 PM eastern.  Coverage will be provided by NBC-SN, Sirius XM radio or streaming on the IndyCar 14 app provided by Verizon.