FONTANA, Calif. — Will Power will start the final race in his IndyCar championship chase from the next-to-last spot on the grid. Way up front on the pole is Helio Castroneves, Power’s teammate and the driver with the most realistic chance of catching him for the series title.
After so much heartbreak over the last few years, Power doesn’t expect anything to be simple. If the Australian intends to raise the IndyCar trophy for the first time Saturday night, he’ll have to overcome poor track position, an eager teammate and the weight of his recent history.
With confidence befitting a race car driver, Power is eager for the challenges facing him under the lights at Fontana.
“We’ve got a long night ahead,” Power said Friday, visibly frustrated by his poor performance. “It’s far from over. I’m going to do everything possible to make it happen. ... You’ve got three hours to work your way to the front. I think that’s got to be the mindset.”
Indeed, Power has ample time to make up for his sluggish qualifying lap in a 500-mile race on the well-aged oval built by Roger Penske, his team owner. Qualifying results usually don’t matter much at sizzling Fontana, with many drivers preferring to sit back early on while those in front burn more fuel.
Yet anybody familiar with Power’s recent history was understandably alarmed by the familiar ring to his qualifying struggles. Power led the IndyCar standings heading into the final race in 2010 and 2012, only to lose the title in agonizing fashion both times.
Power trailed Dario Franchitti by 18 points heading into the final race of 2011, but Franchitti won the title when the race was canceled due to the 15-car crash that killed Dan Wheldon.
Even Castroneves, who also has never won an IndyCar series title after numerous near misses, couldn’t take pleasure in Power’s qualifying misfortune at Fontana.
“When he had that scenario happening, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Castroneves, who passed Rick Mears with his 41st career pole. “I was actually concerned, because we couldn’t have that kind of scenario. I was having some doubts, but there’s nothing you can do.”
Power minimized the importance of his position, saying he prefers to “start in the very front or the very back” so he can maximize his chances of avoiding a crash, the biggest danger to his chances of winning the title.
Castroneves smiled when told of Power’s thoughts.
“I guess his wish came true,” the Brazilian said. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I feel that for me, I’ve got to go in front. There’s no question about it.”
Power can’t know exactly where he must finish to wrap up Penske’s first title since 2006, but he’s still in a commanding position. Power leads Castroneves by 50 points heading into the double-points finale, with Simon Pagenaud 81 points back in third place.
“I always tell our guys that if one driver wins, the team wins,” Penske said. “And if you’re on the team, you get that benefit now. That’s how we’ve operated for so many years.”
Penske and Penske Racing President Tim Cindric plan to gather their drivers before the race to praise their teamwork all season. Each of Penske’s three drivers have won at least one race, and Juan Pablo Montoya qualified right behind Castroneves in second.
Power and Castroneves then will be free to race for the title, and Penske doesn’t think team orders will be necessary. The 77-year-old mogul just hopes either one of his drivers ends his eight-year IndyCar title drought.
“Being in this position for the championship, I probably shouldn’t be up here (talking about it),” Penske said before qualifying. “Because every year, we seem to get to this race or the last race, and we seem to kick the can down the road.”