It was on Lap 46 of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ season-ending race Sept. 11 at WeatherTech Laguna Seca that it seemed as if another season championship was about to slip from Will Power’s grasp.
The driver who lost three chances at series titles a decade ago had done all the right things in the early part of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, earning the pole and leading a lap to collect two valuable bonus points. At that point, Power only needed to stay in the top five to secure the championship, and that was if Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden won the 95-lap race, which seemed unlikely given that Newgarden had started on the last row.
Then came Lap 46 when Newgarden passed Power for second place, and a bit of lost momentum allowed Felix Rosenqvist and Romain Grosjean to close the gap on Power for third.
“A bit sketchy,” Power later admitted.
In the pit box, Power’s veteran race engineer, Dave Faustino, said the tension was palpable, heightened by the fact it seemed Newgarden had a chance to catch race leader Alex Palou for the win and those 10 additional – and potentially difference-making – points.
“Internally for us, there was (concern), for sure, and it must have been internally for him, too,” Faustino said of Power. “I’d like to think he probably did have a moment there, like all did, where we wondered …”
The predicament for the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was, in part, caused by qualifying so well the prior day. Yes, it was gratifying to earn the record-setting 68th NTT P1 Award of Power’s career to surpass Mario Andretti’s record-setting career total but pushing hard over three rounds required using more sets of tires than Newgarden or Scott Dixon, the championship contenders who did not advance out of the first round.
Additionally, the race’s only caution came earlier than Faustino wanted, on Lap 39.
“With how we qualified and went through the rounds, we didn’t have a lot of good tires to play with in the race,” Faustino said. “We were kind of glued to that three-stop strategy if we wanted to have reasonable tires the entire time, and that caution came a little early. Because of that, we had to try to save some fuel in order to make the race with the tire allocation we had.”
In retrospect, Faustino can laugh at the message he delivered to Power.
“We just conveyed to him that you can’t lose any positions, you have to make this (challenging) fuel number, and you have to do the best you can on lap time,” Faustino said, laughing. “Just do it all here, and I’m sorry about that, (but) some of the guys around you have sticker tires and don’t have to save fuel.
“We were asking a lot of him, but his response was just, ‘Copy.’”
Power remembered thinking he had to do “everything” to keep Rosenqvist and Grosjean at bay while not making a mistake that would have dropped him deep in the running order.
“I can’t lose any position here,” he told himself. “The car was, the tires … yeah, it was interesting.”
Faustino said the tension remained with the team until it became obvious that Newgarden, who needed a late stop for fuel, wasn’t going to catch Palou for those critical 10 points. That’s how they finished, with Power coming home third to win his second career title by 16 points.
“At that point all we had to do was finish 10th,” Faustino said. “That started to calm things down a bit, and then we had a good (final) stint.”
Power said he had to “dig deep” in that important juncture in the race and didn’t feel secure until the final moments.
“As far as knowing when I had the championship? About two (laps) to go, one to go,” he said. “That’s about how I felt.
“I’ve been in positions where I’ve had races won, and then something happened. Yeah, never (felt secure). Started to look good with 10 to go.”