Will Power's IndyCar lead on line
MOTEGI, Japan -- The Indy Japan 300 at the Twin Ring Motegi oval may be the most important race of Will Power's career.
The Team Penske driver from Australia has never finished better than fifth on an oval track, and in the past three Izod IndyCar Series races, he's seen his championship lead chopped from 59 to 17 points by defending series champion Dario Franchitti.
Yet Power was relaxed about the situation when he informally chatted with a pair of IndyCar beat reporters at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago before the flight to Japan.
"I've just got to go out and do my job and let it come to me," Power said. "It's frustrating that we haven't found success on an oval yet, but I think we've shown in the last couple of races that we have the speed necessary to win.
"Dario is just such a touch competitor -- he's always lurking right there," Power added. "The Ganassi team made a great call to win the Chicago race, but I like our chances at Motegi and Homestead."
One thing Power has going against him is a lack of experience at Motegi. He's never competed at the egg-shaped, 1.549-mile oval nestled in the mountains about three hours outside Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Motegi is one of the few tracks where Franchitti has never won. He finished third and second in his two previous appearances, and he also finished on the podium at the Japanese track during his six-year career in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series.
In Power's rookie Indy car season of 2008, he missed the Motegi round while winning the Long Beach Grand Prix street race, the last event sanctioned by Champ Car. Last year, he drove a partial IndyCar Series schedule but would have missed Motegi anyway after being eliminated for the season by a back injury suffered in a crash at Infineon Raceway.
But of all the oval tracks the IndyCar Series races on, Motegi is the most likely venue for Power to break through. It's much more of a driver's track than the series' other 1.5-mile speedways; Turns 1 and 2 are wide and flat-out, but the tighter-radius Turns 3 and 4 require braking and downshifting.
"I've never been to Motegi, and Homestead, I've done about 10 laps in a race there, so I don't know," Power said. "I'll have to do a very good job, but I think we've just got to go out there and make sure we're ahead of Dario. It's as simple as that. He knows how to win championships. He knows how to win races. I've just got to be a little bit better than that.
"We have our work cut out for us for the championship, but we still have the lead, and onward we go."
Power's Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe appeared to be in position to win the Motegi race in 2009 and take a commanding championship lead in the process, only to spin exiting the pits and drop to 18th place at the finish.
Franchitti went on to win the IndyCar Series championship by winning the series finale at Homestead.
In addition to Briscoe's performance last year, Penske's third driver, Helio Castroneves, won for the team at Motegi in 2006. Scott Dixon went on to lead Franchitti in a Target Chip Ganassi Racing 1-2 sweep in Japan last year, showing that both of IndyCar's top teams will be strong this weekend.
Like most of the drivers, Briscoe enjoys the experience of racing in Japan.
"The fans are crazy -- they just mob you," he said. "It's incredible how enthusiastic they are."
Another popular favorite with the Japanese fans is Danica Patrick, who claimed a historic first victory for a female driver in Indy cars by crossing the line first at Motegi in 2008 to edge Castroneves in a fuel-strategy race.
"Even before I won, I loved going there," Patrick said. "It's beautiful and the people are so nice -- they're very excited to get your autograph. And I just like the culture. It makes going there so much fun no matter what, and especially when you've won there."
Fans will have two native Japanese drivers to root on (Hideki Mutoh of Newman/Haas Racing and Takuma Sato of KV Racing Technology) as well as Japanese-American Roger Yasukawa, who will make his season debut for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Sato was perhaps the most popular Japanese Formula One driver of all time, and a warm welcome is expected for him this weekend.
"I am so excited to be racing back here in Japan in front of my loyal fans for the first time in three years," Sato said. "They are giving me so much great support as always and I am really looking forward to giving them a memorable weekend's racing at Motegi.
"Obviously, I have had a tough season, as everyone can see, but I am actually very positive that although the learning curve has been a steep one, I have learned many useful lessons that I will bring to this week's race."
As a subplot to the overall championship battle, IndyCar's inaugural A.J. Foyt oval championship will be decided at Motegi this weekend. Franchitti leads Dixon by 27 points in that contest.
Power claimed the series' inaugural Mario Andretti road racing championship.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.