A pair of late-season races, back to back on the schedule, proved to be a microcosm of Will Power’s 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
The 2014 champion for Team Penske bolstered his chances at a second title with his third win of the year in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 20. He trailed points-leading teammate Josef Newgarden by 42 points with three races remaining.
But after winning the pole for the next race, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline on Aug. 26, Power spun into the wall at Gateway Motorsports Park on the first green-flag lap. His 20th-place finish coupled with Newgarden winning the race dropped Power 83 points behind, an amount that proved insurmountable.
Power had the speed to contend in nearly every start this season, but it was the races he didn’t finish that ended up being too costly. And he knew it after the Gateway Motorsports Park incident.
“It was pretty obvious a couple races ago that we were in trouble after Gateway,” Power said after placing third in the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma last month to finish fifth in the points.
As Newgarden celebrated his first series championship in wine country, Power lamented with a sour taste in his mouth yet another missed opportunity. He’s had his share in a 32-win career that has seen the 36-year-old Australian finish second in the points four times as well third, fourth and now fifth.
“Obviously you can't have four DNFs in a year and be up there in the championship,” he said. “We won enough races (three) and poles (a series-high six) and we led some good laps (a series-leading 443), but just really didn't — yeah, just too many DNFs, too many.”
A champion endures because of race wins, consistency and an ability to limit the number of times he “did not finish” (DNF) a race. Power’s missteps began in the season-opening race as a mechanical issue with his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet dropped him out of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 19th place.
He was in position to win the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in April, but dropped out of the lead with 13 laps remaining due to a punctured left rear tire. Newgarden won the race, the first of his series-best four victories in 2017.
“I just never quite got on a run, never,” Power said. “I think back to the ones that hurt, and it's failure at St. Pete and we're leading at Barber, that's a huge points swing for me right there that would have put me right in contention here, but getting the puncture.”
The 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May was a double-points setback as Power was involved in an incident that cost him a quality finish he needed. He finished 23rd.
The other DNF came in the Honda Indy Toronto, where Power was involved in a first-lap incident with four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing. Power’s day was done without a lap completed as he finished last in 21st. Dixon was able to continue and salvaged 10th.
By the time Power arrived at Sonoma for the finale, he just talked about winning the pole and the race. Although mathematically in the hunt, he realized his chances were slim because all three of his teammates and Dixon were ahead of him in the standings.
The season finale saw him relegated to being a team player as he shadowed Newgarden all day. Team owner Roger Penske said afterward the plan was for Power to be the points leader’s “wing man” and protect the eventual champion from Dixon.
“Boring day for me,” Power said. “That’s exactly what the team needed, no yellows or anything, just kind of shadowed Josef to try to keep a buffer between him and Dixon.”
The team emphasis was also evident with some crew members from Power’s car reassigned to Newgarden’s crew for Sonoma.
If Power has learned anything at this stage in his career, it’s that the team comes first. And he was reminded of what it takes to win a championship.
“Obviously you want to be the one that wins it, but it's very tough these days, and you've got to have a very solid year to get it done, and when I look at this year, no one made mistakes,” Power said.
Power’s 32 career wins rank ninth on the all-time list. This past season marked the seventh time in eight years he’s won multiple races.
He also reached another milestone when he was the fastest qualifier at Gateway. His sixth pole of the season gave him 50 in his career, which ties teammate Helio Castroneves for third on that all-time list.
“We had some ups and downs with the No. 12 Verizon Chevy team, but it was a good year,” Power said. “We won some races and some poles. We'll give it another go next year.”
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