- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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JOLIET, Ill. -- With a 59-point lead in the Izod IndyCar Series championship, Will Power could play it safe in the final four races of the season.
But he says he's not going to.
Power, 29, from Toowoomba, Australia, built his comfortable championship lead over two-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti on the basis of his performance in the nine races this year run on road and street courses.
But the last four events of the year -- beginning Saturday evening with the Peak Antifreeze and Oil Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway -- will be staged on banked 1.5-mile ovals. Power has never won an oval race in his three-year IndyCar career.
He knows that. And you get the impression that he feels like he needs to win one of these oval races, not just for the points but, if the cards ultimately fall his way, to validate winning the championship in a series that was built exclusively on oval tracks.
Despite the relatively large gap between the championship leaders (Franchitti's Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon is third in the standings, 95 points back), Power knows he can't coast in the last four races. The IndyCar championship has been decided on the last lap of the season four years in a row.
"I don't think this championship is almost mine," Power said last week after claiming his fifth road racing victory of the 2010 campaign. "There's a lot of racing to go, and a lot can happen in four races. You can lose a lot of that buffer 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 very strong."
Power utterly dominated the road and street course portion of the schedule, taking pole position on seven of nine occasions and clinching the Mario Andretti road racing championship one race before last weekend's stop at Sonoma.
But in what is only his second full season of oval racing, Power is searching for a breakthrough performance. He claimed the pole at the only short oval on the schedule (Iowa Speedway) and has led three of four oval events this year for a total of 41 laps, looking very fast and competitive at Indianapolis and Texas in particular.
Power's best oval finish this year is fifth place at Iowa, matching his career best set at Chicagoland in 2008 during his rookie IndyCar campaign with KV Racing Technology.
With Team Penske, he's shown flashes of brilliance on ovals but has yet to put together a perfect race. Chances are that's going to happen at least once in the next four events.
"Will is going to be quite strong," Franchitti predicted. "People are writing him off because of his lack of experience on the ovals, but he'll be right up there."
Under the IndyCar Series points system, Power can win the championship by finishing third in each of the last four races, even if Franchitti wins them all.
"It's nice to be racing on a track that I have some experience on as we transition to the ovals and into the final stretch of the championship," Power said. "The Verizon car has been strong all year long. I am going to be aggressive this weekend. We have to be."
Unless Dixon makes a big move in the points this weekend, he knows he'll have to switch his mindset to helping teammate Franchitti's bid for the championship.
Dixon won earlier this year at Kansas Speedway, the oval track on the IndyCar schedule most similar to Chicagoland.
"We have to work together as a team and obviously finish 1-2 to try to overcome the points deficit at the moment," Dixon remarked.
The Verizon car has been strong all year long. I am going to be aggressive this weekend. We have to be.
”-- Will Power
Chicagoland Speedway has proven to be an excellent venue for Indy cars. The two closest finishes in series history (and four of the top
six) came at the International Speedway Corp.-owned facility near Joliet.
From 2006 to 2008, when the track hosted the IndyCar finale, the series championship was decided on the final lap at Chicagoland. Homestead-Miami Speedway has taken over as the last track on the schedule.
Last year's race was a typical Chicagoland thriller, with Briscoe edging Dixon by 0.077 seconds -- the fourth-closest finish in series history.
"I don't know why fans pay for seats when they're pretty much standing all the time anyway," said Dan Wheldon, a two-time Chicagoland winner.
This year, the Chicagoland IndyCar field is a record 29 cars. As a result, the Indy Racing League has changed the qualifying format from four flying laps to two.
Notable additions to the field this weekend include the return of IndyCar regulars Tomas Scheckter and Ed Carpenter. Scheckter should boost Conquest Racing's chances while Carpenter and Vision Racing are teaming with Panther Racing for the three domestic ovals that round out the year.
The pairing of Indy cars with ARCA stock cars and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has produced a compromised schedule for the open-wheel set.
Indy cars will practice at 9:15 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday and will qualify in midday heat at 1 p.m.
Saturday's race won't start until after 7 p.m. ET, making for completely different track conditions than practice and qualifying.
"It's a big challenge because three of the four ovals are night races," said Andretti Autosport managing director/Danica Patrick race strategist Tom Anderson. "Jumping from that daytime practice to a nighttime race, we're really going to have to be on our toes.
"Otherwise, it's not going to be pretty."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.