- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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SONOMA, Calif. -- With the Mario Andretti Trophy already clinched by Will Power, the road-racing portion of the Izod IndyCar Series championship could be in for an anticlimactic conclusion this weekend at Infineon Raceway.
But don't tell that to Power.
The Australian ace, who also holds a 41-point lead in the overall IndyCar Series championship, is seeking redemption at the track where he suffered the biggest accident of his career.
Power's 2009 season came to a painful end one year ago when his car T- boned Nelson Philippe's stalled car after Power zoomed over the crest of one of Infineon's blind corners. Power suffered two fractured vertebrae and a concussion and was left wondering whether he had done enough in a partial campaign for Team Penske to be invited back for 2010.
The Penske organization transferred its outlawed Verizon Wireless sponsorship from NASCAR into the IndyCar Series to field a third full-time entry for Power. And the man from Toowoomba has repaid Roger Penske and Tim Cindric in spades, winning a series-best four races en route to that comfortable championship lead.
However, Power needs to maintain or pad that lead if possible at Infineon, because he admits that he is still learning the art of oval racing in what is only his second full IndyCar campaign. The final four races of the season will be staged on 1.5-mile speedways.
Power showed he will be a force this weekend by pacing the open IndyCar test at the undulating California road course a couple of weeks ago. He was 0.4 seconds quicker than his closest championship pursuer, Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
Power was pleased with the safety improvements made at Infineon in the wake of his jarring accident, including two additional warning strobe lights with black backboards for additional visibility and added sets of LED lights facing the track. Measures have also been taken to improve radio communication and Race Control audio.
"I was a little nervous heading up over that hill [at Turn 3A] a couple of times, for sure," Power said after the open test. "But the track has done a fantastic job of making sure that everyone is aware if someone does spin. If there is a car sitting up and over the top, there's a lot of lights and plenty of warning before you get there now.
"I enjoy this track," he added. "It's very technical and one of the better road courses we come to, so I'd like to come back here and I'd love to win."
I went into the event at Sonoma last year wanting to win, and I did not get the opportunity to race because of the accident. So I am going into the weekend determined to drive the Verizon Team Penske car into the victory circle.
”-- Will Power
Power has a series-leading nine top-5 finishes out of 12 starts in 2010, yet Franchitti is still within striking distance of the points lead. Dario's teammate Scott Dixon is third in the standings, 84 points back.
Franchitti is the defending race champion, having led every lap from the pole position in 2009.
"This is going to be another challenging weekend," Power said. "Dario is very quick at this track and we know he'll be tough.
"I went into the event at Sonoma last year wanting to win, and I did not get the opportunity to race because of the accident. So I am going into the weekend determined to drive the Verizon Team Penske car into the victory circle.
"I plan on working hard, having a little fun and hopefully getting the job done right on Sunday."
"I really love driving at Infineon and I've had success there," said Andretti. "It would be great to get my second career win this weekend in the Venom car. I think the team as a whole should have a strong showing."
Another driver who could show strongly this weekend is Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson, who was third-fastest in the open test, just one-hundredth of a second slower than Franchitti.
The open test saw impressive performances from a pair of former Indy Lights champions. Raphael Matos of De Ferran Dragon Racing was fifth-fastest, just ahead of 2009 Lights titlist (and local favorite) JR Hildebrand, who will make his second career IndyCar Series start as Wilson's teammate at Dreyer & Reinbold.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
The last time we saw Will Power on the Sonoma road course, he crashed hard and fractured two vertebrae. Needless to say, he's anxious to put those 2009 memories behind him.