By Chris Estrada, INDYCAR Nation
The same gut-wrenching scenario may be coming true once more for Team Penske’s Will Power.
In 2010, Power saw a 59-point lead evaporate over the final four races and lost the IZOD IndyCar Series championship to Dario Franchitti in the end by a mere five markers. Then last year, Power had charged past Franchitti to the title lead late in the season before a pit road incident at the next-to-last race in Kentucky forced him to give it back to the Scotsman, who went on to claim his fourth IndyCar crown.
Franchitti has suffered a down campaign in 2012, but Power will once again be subjected to another down-to-the-wire fight for glory. Whether the third time will be the charm for the Australian is anyone’s guess after Sunday’s Grand Prix of Baltimore, where he saw his points lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay fall to a mere 17 points after the American earned his fourth – and most important – victory of the season.
"I knew it would be a day like this,” said Power, who finished sixth and was unable to capitalize on the 29th pole of his career. “It never comes easy. We just have to do our best and fight like a dog until the end.
“We'll come out swinging."
The curtain-closing MAV TV 500 on Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway will serve as the crucible for the two drivers, who are both going after their first series title (Note: Get your tickets HERE). For a time on Sunday, it appeared that Power was set to effectively render IndyCar’s return to the two-mile California oval as nothing more than a tune-up for 2013.
But instead, Mother Nature and a critical pit mistake got the better of him and Team Penske.
As expected, rainfall played an early role in the race. But it appeared that while the shower touched some parts of the two-mile street circuit, it didn’t drench all of it. That didn’t stop most of the leaders, including Power, to go to wet tires under caution on Lap 19.
However, Hunter-Reay stayed out on his dry slicks despite the damp conditions at the time. The gutsy move paid off as he made up valuable track position, and when the track quickly dried out, Power was caught out on the wets and eventually was forced to go to pit road on Lap 27 in order to get slicks on – falling deep into the pack as a result.
“Basically, there was a bit of confusion on the radio,” Power explained. “I said ‘I'll pit’ and then I said ‘I'll wait one lap,’ and in the meantime, [strategist] Tim [Cindric] was saying ‘Pit.’ I think we were talking at the same time and he told me to pit and we missed that; I think that would have helped a lot. It's just unfortunate.”
From there, Power’s mission changed from clinching the title in Charm City to minimizing the damage that Hunter-Reay was going to inflict on his points lead. Afterwards, it changed again to having to move on from it all and focus on Fontana.
But Power admitted frustration on Sunday. He knows he’s had his chances recently to earn a victory that would put him over the top, but none of them have been successful for one reason or another.
“Every weekend, we are not just the quickest, but by a bunch, and circumstances seem to prevent us from winning,” he said. “So that can become frustrating when you're the quickest guy in town. When you look at the last three races…[in] Edmonton, we were the quickest and got the engine change and got back to third, so it was a good day anyway. Mid Ohio, pole, quickest again, lost in the pits. Sonoma, [we] lost it on the yellow.
“And today, [we] lost it with the weather.”
It’s the same script that has played out for Power in the last two seasons and now threatens to do so for the third year in a row: Win multiple races and show blinding speed, then falter late in the season and lose the title in agonizing fashion.
One can argue that despite his stellar record (15 victories with Penske Racing since 2009) and his remarkable talent, Power is still his own worst enemy. There may be nobody in the sport that’s more intensely dedicated to his craft than he is.
With that in mind, the question of what another title collapse may do to his mindset – not to mention his otherwise great reputation as a racer -- has to be considered.
It can’t happen again. Not with Penske equipment at his disposal. Not with just five ovals to deal with on this year’s schedule. Not with Franchitti running an uncustomary ninth in the standings.
"I'd just love to win something, just one time, win something of significance," he said to the Associated Press during the lead-up to this year’s Indianapolis 500. "I'm so sick of it."
If he’s not clutching IndyCar’s World Championship Trophy in two weeks, Will Power is going to be beyond sick.
He’s going to be just plain ill.