Will Power finally reaped the reward for containing the emotions that had once beguiled him. And then he let them loose to liven the celebration.
The 37-year-old Australian controlled the final quarter of the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, but didn’t hold the lead for good until Stefan Wilson and Jack Harvey were forced to abandon a fuel conservation play in the final laps, allowing Power to give owner Roger Penske his record 17th win in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ greatest event.
For a driver who has seen championships and Indianapolis wins fade away under circumstances either bizarre or because of admitted lapses, the 2014 season champion – as has been his aim in recent seasons – was calm and methodical in victory. That is, until he reached victory circle for a manic celebration with his team and wife, Liz. The couple hugged and screamed joyously, almost disbelievingly, at each other.
Pole sitter Ed Carpenter finished second, 3.1589 seconds back despite leading a race-high 65 laps, followed by former Indy 500 winners Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“I feel like collapsing,” said Power, who led 59 laps in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “I want to cry. … I was wondering if I would ever win it. And thoughts went through my mind during the month, I guess. My career, I’ve had so many wins, so many poles. that everybody always talks about the 500.”
In the first superspeedway oval use of the universal aerodynamic body kit for both Chevrolet and Honda, 15 different drivers led on Sunday, tying an Indy 500 record set last season. The new kit changed the tone of the event, as predicted by drivers, with turbulent air in traffic, aggressiveness on restarts and handling in corners becoming a critical factor. The advantage of stalking and sling-shotting past a leader was eliminated.
“This was a race you wanted to lead,” Power said. “At last they had a formula, if you had a good car, the leader could benefit and pull away. I liked it. It definitely made it harder to drive, put the driver back into it more, where before you could hang back, third, no one wanted to lead.
“Yeah, it was a race like it was in 2008, '09, '10, '11, that kind of race. It was about your speed. The tires would degrade. You're never wide open. It put the drivers back into it more, in my opinion.”
The puckishness of the new kits was dramatically illustrated by veterans Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais, among several, whose races were truncated by spins through corners that ended in contact with the SAFER Barrier.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato lasted just 46 laps in defense of his 2017 Indy 500 victory, plowing into the back of a laboring James Davison in Turn 3. Davison had struggled with control throughout the race in the No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s 502 East Chevrolet for the Foyt with Byrd-Hollinger-Belardi team.
Sato cited high closing rates in the incident and said he was powerless to avoid it once he came within proximity of an “air pocket” behind Davison’s car.
“I tried to avoid everything, but sorry, I couldn’t avoid it,” Sato said.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ed Jones lost control coming out of Turn 2 and spun into the wall on Lap 58, mashing the right side of his Honda. He was transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital complaining of neck pain, was later released but will be re-examined before being cleared to drive.
ones’ crash served as a precursor for the final professional racing moments of Danica Patrick, who spun in similar fashion on Lap 68, bashing the front of her No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet into the SAFER Barrier and careening back into the interior retaining wall.
Patrick had returned to Indianapolis to conclude her career at the epicenter of the fame that made it so notable. As a rookie in 2005, she became the first female to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500, finishing what was then a gender-best fourth. Patrick was third in the 500 in 2009.
This was not what she imagined. The 30th-place finish was the worst of her career at the Indianapolis 500, a stark contrast to the six top-10s she produced in her previous seven starts from 2005-11.
“I do feel like it was pretty unexpected, but on the other hand the car was a little bit positive today and was turning a bit more than I wanted to,” Patrick said. “I was just having to chase (the car) a lot.
“It just swung around as soon as I recommitted back to the throttle – so I wasn’t expecting it by any means. I think it just goes to show that the cars are tough to drive.
“It was definitely not the way I wanted to end, of course. I wouldn’t want to end any year like that – but, of course, being the last (race), it makes it a lot worse. I did have some good moments here this month and I won’t forget that, either.”
Just laps after leading on a pit cycle, Bourdais lost control on Lap 139 and backed the No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda into the SAFER Barrier in Turns 3 and 4. Bourdais’ caution period allowed race leader Power and pole sitter Carpenter to reach the 200-lap distance on one more pit stop in what became a strategy-jumbling final third of the race.
The 500 lost another nostalgic storyline on the ensuing restart as veteran Castroneves, in his ninth attempt to capture a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, crashed similarly out of Turn 4. Hunter-Reay plied through tire smoke to barely avoid contact as Castroneves skidded hard backward into an interior SAFER Barrier.
A frustrated Castroneves, who moved to Team Penske’s sports car team full time this season but returned to run the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indy 500 this month, implored team owner Roger Penske to let him try again next May.
“Please, Roger, I gotta go back!” he said.
Team president Tim Cindric said after the race that “he's going to be back. He will be here next year in one of our cars.”
Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner, brought out the last of seven caution flags when he spun and crashed off Turn 2 on Lap 189. The restart came with eight laps to go and Power trailing Oriol Servia, Wilson and Harvey. All three were lean on fuel, however, and when Wilson and Harvey had to stop for a splash of ethanol four laps from the finish, the track was clear for Power to drive to the victory.
The win allowed Power to become the first driver to sweep both IMS races in a year, following his May 12 INDYCAR Grand Prix on the road course. With the race paying double points, it also put Power into the championship lead after six races, two points up on Alexander Rossi (who finished fourth) and 10 ahead of Josef Newgarden (who finished eighth).
Close has marked Power’s career with Team Penske since he joined the team full time in 2010. He finished second in series points that season after leading the points into the final race, but crashing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Dario Franchitti won the championship. Power led the standings again after the penultimate official race of the 2011 season but finished 19th at Kentucky Speedway and saw Franchitti win his third consecutive championship. In 2012, Power topped the standings entering the final at Auto Club Speedway, but an inexplicable crash left the title to Ryan Hunter-Reay. Power eventually finished off a championship in 2014.
“Look, this closes the book for what he wanted to accomplish in INDYCAR: win a championship, now is tied for winning the most races as an Indy driver for the team (31) and the Indy 500 is something that he wanted to do from the very beginning,” team owner Roger Penske said. “He's had some ups and downs. Championships slipped away from him, two or three almost in a row. You'll talk to him. He's in a different world right now, which is important.”
The final box, the Indianapolis 500 box, remained bedeviling, too, however. After Sunday, he’s led laps in his last six attempts, including his previous best of 23 in 2015, but was outdueled in a furious finish by teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. Power was second.
“I thought about that a lot, what I should have done, should have changed this and that,” Power said of that May afternoon. “It's just not your day. It kind of worked out like that. That day I did everything, could do. Today I did it again, and it all worked out well.
“It was through speed, pit stops, in and out laps, good restarts. It was a fight to win it. It was not an easy win. That makes it much more satisfying.”