Will Power: King of the road (course)
SONOMA, Calif. -- Will Power repeatedly proved he is the best road racer in the Izod IndyCar Series this year.
Now he's ready to show that he's IndyCar's top overall pilot, too.
Power carted home two trophies from Infineon Raceway on Sunday -- one for winning the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma for his series-leading fifth victory of the season, plus the inaugural Mario Andretti Trophy as IndyCar's top road racer.
The Australian will take a 59-point lead into the final four races of the 2010 campaign -- all staged on 1.5-mile ovals of remarkably different character and configuration.
Power has never won an oval race in 15 starts. In the four oval races earlier this year, he ranked eighth in the standings and scored 46 fewer points than Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Franchitti is Power's closest pursuer in the overall standings. Scott Dixon leads the oval sub-championship and is third in the overall standings, 95 points behind Power.
This Sunday on Infineon's 2.3-mile road course, Power was peerless. He built a 14-second advantage while leading 73 of 75 laps and held on to edge the demoralized Ganassi team of Dixon and Franchitti.
To complete the feel-good storyline, Power's latest victory in a championship-caliber campaign came at the track where his 2009 season ended on a backboard.
"It's unreal -- what a perfect weekend to come back here after a year ago, lying in [a] hospital watching the same race," Power exclaimed. "I wanted to come back here and win this race. I just went about my business and did my very best every single lap.
"I can't thank Tim Cindric and Roger Penske and Verizon enough for giving me this opportunity. I'm so happy."
But even before Power closed the book on his latest IndyCar triumph, he and the Penske team already were thinking ahead to the second and final stage of the oval season -- starting Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway.
"We've been thinking about the ovals for weeks," confirmed Power's race strategist, Clive Howell. "I think he's gonna be good. He's going to shake that monkey, and we'll be fine."
Power admitted that he was conservative and even cautious in the earlier oval races this year.
But he vowed to approach the upcoming contests at Chicagoland, Kentucky, Motegi and Homestead speedways in the same aggressive fashion that garnered him so much success in this year's IndyCar road race events.
"Man, I'm going for it," Power said. "I want to win this championship. I'm not sitting back. I'm not going to be stupid, but I want to win this championship and I want to win an oval race.
"With four races to go, a lot can happen," he added. "Really, you can lose a lot of that [points] advantage in just one race. We're going to work really hard. I'm going to race those ovals like I want to win the championship. I think I've got enough experience now, and I think we'll be really strong."
The story of Power's journey from hospital bed to Victory Lane in Sonoma is one of the year's most gratifying in any form of racing.
Man, I'm going for it. I want to win this championship. I'm not sitting back. I'm not going to be stupid, but I want to win this championship and I want to win an oval race.” -- Will Power
At the end of 2008, he was dropped by KV Racing and wondered whether his four-year American career had come to an end. But the native of Toowoomba, Australia, accepted a risky part-time deal with the top-tier Penske team when Helio Castroneves was sidelined by a tax evasion case in the first part of 2009.
Power passed the audition and went on to win one race in a partial campaign for Team Penske in 2009. But he worried about his future when he fractured two vertebrae in a practice crash at Infineon Raceway a year ago.
"Roger called me not long after I arrived in [the] hospital and said, 'Look, don't worry about it. We'll look after you. We'll have something for you next year, even if it's not full time.'
"I tell you, at the end of '08, I was ready to go home to Australia and race V-8s," he said of the popular Supercar racing there. "Had I not gotten this opportunity, I'd have never known what my potential was."
It was especially gratifying for Power to win at the scene of his back-breaking accident.
"I always liked this race course," he said. "It was an unfortunate thing that happened, but it was just a bad set of circumstances. As a driver you need to shut those things out and not let them affect you. You're going to have a bad accident at some point in your career. That's part of it."
Power's challenge now is to show his potential as an oval winner. With a 59-point cushion, he has some margin for error. But he knows he'll have to perform to beat the Ganassi team.
"It's exciting for our team,'" Dixon said. "Both Dario and myself have done extremely well on the 1-½-mile circuits, especially the ones we have left. We have to work together as a team and obviously finish 1-2 to overcome the points deficit at the moment.
"Our cars have always done well, and I think I have something like five second-place finishes at Chicago. Hopefully, we can turn that into a win for a change or keep Will back in the pack and take some points off of him. Obviously, my job is going to be to try to help Dario and myself close the gap as much as possible, apply as much pressure as possible and hopefully put them under enough that they make mistakes."
"It's a fairly large deficit," Franchitti admitted. "I don't underestimate the challenge at all. Will is going to be quite strong. People are writing him off because of his lack of experience on ovals, but he'll be right up there.
"We have to do a better job, and we'll be pushing 100 percent."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.