<
>

Power a champion? Maybe not a stretch

3/29/2010

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Will Power's victory in the rain-delayed IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg wasn't exactly cut and dried.

But at least it was mostly dry.

Power took a patient approach into Monday's race, dropping from pole position to fourth place in the early laps when the 1.8-mile street course was damp and slippery. He didn't panic when Team Penske's decision to use a conservative, two-stop strategy mired him deep in the 24-car field a third of the way through the 100-lap contest.

And when the mayhem typically associated with street-course racing finally began to play out, Power found his Verizon Wireless-sponsored car at the head of the pack. He overcame a late brush with the wall to defeat Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson by 0.824 of a second, with Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves taking third and fourth.

"Fantastic start," Power said of his perfect record to kick off 2010. "I can't ask for much better. It's my first full season in a good team and I'm just putting it all together with my four years of experience here."

The race was run in full on Monday morning after a band of strong storms flooded the track Sunday afternoon and sent fans seeking shelter from lightning.

Delaying the race by 18 hours didn't prevent Power from scoring his second win in two starts in 2010. He's the first driver to win the first two IndyCar races of the season since Sam Hornish Jr. parlayed a pair of early victories into a series championship in 2001.

"Just great," Power exclaimed on ESPN2's race broadcast. "We're out to win the championship. Perfect pit stops and a good race. It was a perfect weekend -- pole and a win. You can't beat that."

While Power was happy to give the credit to the Verizon Penske team, his race strategist, Clive Howell, said the win was due to the man in the cockpit.

"It all boils down to the driver," Howell said. "You need a little luck, but you can make a lot of mistakes when you have a fast driver."

After the final round of pit stops, Power found himself in second place behind EJ Viso as KV Racing Technology vaulted its driver into the lead using an out-of-sequence pit stop strategy.

But before Power could devise a way past the Venezuelan, Viso's gearbox broke and the Penske driver had to swerve in avoidance. His only other scare came with four laps to go, when he brushed the Turn 10 wall while under pressure from Wilson.

"I saw him get sideways a couple times but I couldn't get close enough to get a win," Wilson said. "He did a great job. It was a pretty eventful race and I lost track of what was going on for awhile, but the team just said keep following Will and whatever strategy he took. Then I was trying to make most of it pushing hard.

"The Dreyer & Reinbold crew got me up there and from then on it was just trying to put Will under some pressure."

The second-place finish was the best for D&R since co-owner Robbie Buhl scored the Indianapolis-based team's only victory at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000.

"I was saving my push-to-pass for the last stint when I could push hard but it didn't quite work out," Wilson said of the 25 seconds of horsepower boost available to Indy cars in a race. "We've taken a lot from this race and learned a lot. We can improve and move forward."

The happiest drivers at the finish were Briscoe and Dario Franchitti, who bounced back from a first-lap spin to finish fifth.

"With my screw-up on first lap and then getting a flat tire, to come back and get fifth place, we'll take it," Franchitti said.

Briscoe and the No. 6 Penske team purposely used alternate pit strategy to take third after qualifying 19th.

"Qualifying was a mess for us but the race worked out great," Briscoe said. "I think we underestimated the competition in the field. We used the wrong tire in qualifying and ended on 10th row, which was a shock.

"But we knew we had a fast car and knew if we could do the opposite of leaders and get out of sequence, we could get some clear track and make up ground on the midfield guys. It felt great at the end of the race to be up there in top three."

The pair of victories propelled Power to a commanding 44-point lead in the championship standings over Wilson, Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

"I think it's wide open," observed Wilson. "Obviously Will got a great start to season with back-to-back wins. But look at depth of field -- Ryan and Dario didn't make it through the first round of qualifying. That shows if you have one small hiccup you're not going to make it through and will start at the back.

"We've just got to keep working on our own game," Wilson added. "We can't affect how fast Will is -- we just have to try to beat him. We have to get our car right in qualifying and not make any mistakes in the race."

Power is certainly not letting the early championship talk get to him.

"I'm aware it's only race 3 of 17," he said of the next event in Alabama on April 11. "It doesn't matter if you win the first two if you have a heap of bad ones after that. I've got to keep pushing every weekend -- that's my thought."

That's not something that Power's rivals are looking forward to.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.