Will Power

Will Power has been an NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver since 2005, so he at least casually knows the history of the racing in his era.

But the reigning series champion was surprised to learn Wednesday that only two drivers in that time have won consecutive championships: Sebastien Bourdais (2004-07) and Dario Franchitti (2009-11). The past 11 champions, including Power in 2014, have failed to repeat.

Which means, the challenge to win the Astor Challenge Cup again this year is going to be immense, particularly against the sport’s largest full-season field in a decade.

Twenty-seven car-and-driver combinations are entered for this weekend’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding (Sunday, noon ET, NBC, Peacock, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network), and 14 of the drivers are former race winners.

“It’s only race by race,” Power said of the path to a series title. “Yeah, I am well aware of (the possibility) of going back-to-back, which would be fantastic, but the mentality approach is race by race, getting the most out of every single lap, basically, when you get down to the nitty gritty.”

Power celebrated his 42nd birthday Wednesday, which means in his lifetime only five INDYCAR SERIES drivers have won consecutive titles: Alex Zanardi, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr., Bourdais and Franchitti. Since the sport resumed after World War II, only A.J. Foyt has twice had separate championship streaks. History shows it’s always a tough act to follow.

Power said he expects the usual cast of frontrunners featuring drivers from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport and Arrow McLaren Racing, to name a few. Realistically, those four teams will bring about a dozen experienced shoes to the championship conversation. Drivers on those four teams alone have a combined 149 series race wins, including all 17 last year.

Returning series champions include Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (six titles) and Alex Palou, Team Penske’s Power and Josef Newgarden (two each), and Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud. Power singled out Palou, the 2021 champion, as the non-Penske driver he most has his eye on.

“Apart from my two teammates, I want to say Palou is probably going to be the toughest other guy,” Power said. “Who knows if (Colton) Herta (of Andretti Autosport) gets some real good consistency. It’s very difficult to say. Dixon is always there, but I feel Palou is a faster version of Dixon because he’s extremely fast and consistent. But I think obviously both are extremely good drivers.

“The field is full of extremely good drivers.”

Beginning with Friday’s first practice at 3 p.m. ET, the field will welcome four rookie drivers: Marcus Armstrong of Chip Ganassi Racing, Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, Benjamin Pedersen of AJ Foyt Racing and Agustin Canapino of Juncos Hollinger Racing.

Power is coming off one of the most productive seasons of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career even though he only won one race. (He has won multiple races in 10 of his 13 seasons as a full-time Team Penske driver.)

A season of high-level consistency and a sprint to year’s end in qualifying helped the driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet capture his first series championship since 2014. Power won four NTT P1 Awards in the season’s final seven races to pass Mario Andretti’s all-time record for achieving the top spot in qualifying. Power now has 68 career poles, one more than Andretti, the legend who won the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

Power earned his lone victory of the season in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, pushing his career total to 41 wins. One more win will tie him with Michael Andretti for fourth place on the sport’s all-time list.

But it was Power’s consistency last year that was most impactful. He finished in the top three in nine of the 17 races, tying the most for his career in a single season. He also had nine podium finishes in 2010 and 2011, seasons when he finished second in the overall point standings.

Power and Dixon completed all 2,268 laps, with Power leading 335 of them – the third-highest total of the season. Power and teammate Josef Newgarden each led a series-high 10 races, and in Power’s Detroit win, he drove from the 16th starting position, the farthest any winning driver came from in 2022.

Power enters this season seeking a win in his 17th consecutive season, trailing only Dixon in that category. Dixon, whose streak is also active, stands at 18 straight years and 20 overall.

About the only thing that didn’t go right for Power was the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, where he finished 15th after starting 11th. But the struggle on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval was a team-wide situation as Newgarden finished 13th and Scott McLaughlin ended up 29th. Power said Team Penske put “a ton of effort” into Indy preparation during this offseason.

Now, it comes down to executing at each event to win another series championship. Only 11 drivers in history have won three or more season titles.

“Every year it’s the moment of truth to see where you stack up,” said Power, who has won two races and a series-leading nine poles in St. Petersburg events. “It’s very important to get off to a good start. (I’m) usually anxious two weeks before (the first race), then as it becomes race week all of the anxiety goes away because you’re relaxed and ready to go, knowing all of the work is over for the offseason and you get to do the job that you love so much.

“So, yep, can’t wait to get there.”

This weekend schedule for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding includes Friday’s first practice at 3 p.m. ET followed by Saturday’s practice at 10 a.m. Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award is Saturday at 2:15 p.m., with Sunday showcasing a final practice at 9 a.m. and the 100-lap race at noon. NBC, Peacock, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network will have live television coverage of the race, with all practice and qualifying sessions this season available on Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.