This time last year, heading into the penultimate race of the season with only ovals left to be run, Will Power led the point standings over Dario Franchitti by 17 points. At Homestead-Miami Speedway, he became his own undoing and gave away the title.
This year, Power goes into the last two races -- again, both ovals -- with only a five point lead over the man who has so quickly become his chief rival. On its surface, this appears to put Power at a greater disadvantage. His prowess on road and street courses is well-known, but he has a reputation for underperforming when right turns aren't part of the skill set necessary for an event.
In 2011, though, some key factors have changed. Here's why Will Power will seal the deal at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and end the five-year championship drought at Team Penske.
- His team will be ready to back him up. The reputation mentioned above that Power has for underperforming on ovals is ubiquitous but patently untrue. An analysis of Power's 2010 oval results (detailed in my half of a Counterpoint article) makes it very clear very quickly that his downfall in the vast majority of those events was not himself but his crew. And the first half of 2011 heralded more of the same as pit lane mishaps at Indianapolis and Iowa created unnecessary setbacks.
But just before this year's race in Toronto, the team did something about it: Tim Cindric, the President of Penske Racing, was moved to Power's pit stand. The operation supporting the #12 machine has been running like clockwork ever since. There are still plenty of things that could go wrong to undo Power's title aspirations, but a gaffe in the pits is no longer likely to be among them.
- He's learning how to keep his wits about him. As much as many of the issues that plagued Power's 2010 championship attempt were not his fault, it's impossible to forget the one that unquestionably was: facing enormous pressure in the final event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Power cracked and let his concentration lapse just long enough to find himself in a race-ending encounter with the SAFER Barrier. Again, 2011 initially appeared to be headed down the same path. Through the midpoint of the season, Power often looked haggard in interviews as he lashed out against his team and his competitors in apparent frustration.
Not long after Power aired his concerns on live television at Iowa Speedway, Alex Tagliani, Power's former teammate and friend (accusations of being a "wanker" notwithstanding), offered him some advice: "I told him, 'Look, you just have to get back into the mode where you drive because you like driving and stop thinking about winning the championship." It appears that Power may have taken Tagliani's comments to heart -- since then, he's consistently churned out results while keeping a cool demeanor (his outburst at New Hampshire being the exception, of course, but those were extenuating circumstances). If Power can continue to keep his head in the game and keep the pressure from getting the better of him, he'll find the final key to the success that's been eluding him.
- He's got the oval-win monkey off his back. At this time last year, Power's detractors would not let him or anyone else forget that he still had yet to win on an oval. This season, though, that problem has been solved. As much as some people attempt to downplay it by calling it half a win, the record books don't lie: Will Power won his first oval event at Texas Motor Speedway in the second race of the Firestone Twin 275s. The impact that had on Power's psyche must not be underestimated. He's now proven that he can do it, so there's absolutely nothing stopping him from doing it again.
Will Power the 2010 championship contender was in his first full season with a newly expanded team while facing growing pains and mental challenges.
Will Power the 2011 championship contender is the number one driver at a top team that has made his title run a priority, and he's matured while overcoming the barriers to his success.
Dario Franchitti knows it, too. Now, he's the one buckling under pressure -- just look at his highly uncharacteristic errors at New Hampshire and Motegi.
Power's going to get the job done this time around. And it will be a victory well-deserved.
Steph Wallcraft (@99forever) is co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Steph can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.