Will Power can now, finally, take a long, deep, champion’s breath. Eight years after winning his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, he has another.
What transpired over the weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca was a microcosm of Power’s season. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet won the NTT P1 Award for being the fastest qualifier – he did so five times in 17 races this year – and then raced consistently and with veteran savviness bred over nearly 20 seasons of INDYCAR SERIES competition.
Power didn’t win the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey – he didn’t need to secure the title – but he had a third-place car and delivered a third-place result. That’s what champions do.
Like with most races this season, Power was challenged by his veteran teammates, with Josef Newgarden charging from the 25th starting position to finish second, and Scott McLaughlin, who finished sixth after spending much of the 95-lap race covering fellow championship contender Scott Dixon. Power led only one lap after Lap 16, but he did what was necessary.
Alex Palou helped Power’s cause by giving Newgarden no chance to catch him. Palou, the outgoing champion, passed the torch by blazing to a 30-second victory, his first race win of the year.
There was much to enjoy about this trip to Monterey, and today we highlight the following:
Power: A Lot of Stress
It should never be easy to win an NTT INDYCAR SERIES title, and this one certainly wasn’t despite Power entering the finale with a 20-point lead over Newgarden and Dixon.
Power pushed the lead to 21 points by winning the pole on Saturday, but he said the stress of the weekend didn’t allow him to celebrate the milestone of the record-breaking No. 68.
“I was so focused on the race,” he said.
The fact Power admitted to there being “a lot of stress” on him in part stemmed from the fact he let such opportunities slip away in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the latter was particularly heartbreaking as he crashed mid-race at Auto Club Speedway while trying to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay, the driver he only needed to keep in sight that day.
Power said he was reasonably calm after getting off to a clean start to Sunday’s race and adding another bonus point for leading a lap. Then he led the next 13 laps. It was the perfect start.
But then Newgarden came charging through the field and was increasing the pressure.
“I was pretty calm all year, (and) once I got in the car (Sunday) and we started rolling, it was fine,” Power said. “A bit sketchy in the middle of the race. I was digging deep, (had) to give everything I could. (Kept thinking), ‘I can’t lose any position here.’”
If Power didn’t look too excited after he got out of the car, well, there was a reason for it.
“Mentally drained,” he said. “Couldn’t show the sort of emotion that I showed when I won the ‘500’ (in 2018).”
Liz, the Soothsayer
One of the first things Power said after clinching the championship was that his wife, Liz, had predicted it, just as she had predicted he would break Mario Andretti’s all-time pole record this season.
Turns out she also had predicted her husband’s 2018 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge victory.
“She said that,” Power said in the post-race media briefing. “I believe (it was) probably a time where I was disappointed in something or just … talking about my career or something. She goes, ‘I believe you’re going to beat Mario’s record this year and win another championship.’ That’s what she said. Legit, she said that.”
Power said they were standing in the kitchen of their North Carolina home at the time, but apparently it wasn’t the first time Liz had made such a comment.
“She said that a couple of times in the year, and it actually gave me confidence,” he said. “That’s how much faith I have in her gut feel. It kind of made me feel, ‘OK, yeah, she’s said things like this before.’
“I know (she said it) before the season, and she said it again during the season. Even before this weekend she said, ‘I know you’re going to do it.’ She said that: ‘I know you’re going to do it.’”
Palou on Point
There was so much focus on Power trying to hang on to his title bid and Newgarden’s charge through the field that history might not remember the spectacular nature of Palou’s drive.
He won by 30.3812 seconds after giving the other contenders a head start. Remember, he started six positions deeper in the field than he qualified – he rolled off 11th due to a penalty for an unapproved engine change after qualifying – and it didn’t matter.
Palou said there wasn’t much pressure on him before this race even though it could have been his last ride with Chip Ganassi Racing due to the legal fight over his 2023 services. Palou said the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was strong in the 30-minute warmup before the race – he posted the quickest lap – and then it was a matter of executing.
Palou had the lead by Lap 16 and led 67 laps for the day.
“With that engine penalty, we just knew it was going to be tougher (to win), at least the first stint,” he said. “But to be honest, our car was on rails. (We) didn’t struggle with tire (degradation) like we did at Portland (on Sept. 4) and the last couple of races.
“I don’t know, but man, I’m happy that we ended this way.”
The victory was Palou’s first of the season and the fourth of his series career. His margin of victory was more than four seconds larger than the combined margins of the rest of the race winners this season.
Lundgaard’s Big Day, Big Season
Christian Lundgaard can take satisfaction he didn’t back into the Rookie of the Year Award. He earned it.
Sunday, with David Malukas starting 10 positions higher, Lundgaard delivered one of his best races of the season, maybe the best when considering the stakes. He drove from 16th to finish fifth, only his second top-five finish of the season.
Lundgaard finished second to Alexander Rossi in the Gallagher Grand Prix on July 30 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. But the driver of the No. 30 PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had lost some momentum in recent weeks, finishing 19th and 21st in the past two races to see his rookie lead cut to five points.
“We did the job today,” Lundgaard said after the race. “I’m just happy that the team gave me the opportunity to be here and achieve this. … Now, I’ve got another championship to win.”
Lundgaard finished with an 18-point advantage over Malukas, whose season in the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD was highlighted by a second-place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway. Lundgaard also finished only 22 points behind his more experienced teammate, Graham Rahal.
The Storylines Ahead
There is certainly much to follow in the coming weeks, and it was on display even as the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey was wrapping up.
Where will Palou drive in 2023? Was Felix Rosenqvist’s fourth-place finish his outgoing result with Arrow McLaren SP? Can Rossi, who finished 10th in the finale, regain his title-contending form at AMSP after seven seasons with Andretti Autosport?
How will Callum Ilott, who started second in his final race as a series rookie, benefit from having a teammate at Juncos Hollinger Racing? Will Chip Ganassi Racing field three cars or four, a decision that largely rests with the decision of Jimmie Johnson to return full time?
Does Colton Herta return to Michael Andretti’s organization?
Certainly, it’s a lot to watch in the days, weeks and months ahead.