IndyCar: Penske teammates hoping for better luck in Fontana finale

Helio Castroneves (car No. 3) gets involved in an opening lap multi-car pile-up at Sonoma.

Michael L. Levitt/©2014, Michael L. Levitt

SONOMA, California – At 3:30 a.m. PT, Will Power awoke from a deep sleep and thought it was the end. As his hotel room was violently rocking and shaking from a 6.1 magnitude earthquake that struck nearby American Canyon, California, Power actually thought how ironic that “the end” would come in an earthquake. After all, Power is fearless behind the wheel of his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske IndyCar.

About 12 hours later, Power was in the middle of what so far had been a dominating performance in the Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma. With Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves – his nearest pursuer in the points championship – involved in a crash on the first lap – Power looked to take a commanding points lead out after the race.

But on Lap 40, Power thought it was the beginning of the end of his championship fight when he spun out after his car on cold tires swapped ends in the hairpin. That dropped Power all the way back to last place on the grid and even behind Castroneves.

It wasn’t the end, however, as Power battled back from a big deficit to finish 10th in a race won by defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. Power’s 10th-place finish combined with Castroneves’ 18th-place finish gives Power a 51-point lead heading into the final race of the season – next Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Power could have had an even bigger lead after he passed Mike Conway for ninth place, but Conway had already run out of fuel and there was a local yellow flag waving at the start/finish line.

Power may have sealed the championship by being able to turn a disastrous day into simply a bad day.

“At the end there without being crazy, every person I could pass was going to be a few more points,” Power said. “We increased the lead, and that is all you can ask for considering what happened. I was on it. I got back in the pack there and everyone was so slow in the hairpin.”

Power was able to take Sunday’s turn of events in stride. After all, the driver from Toowoomba, Australia, and his wife Liz had survived the worst earthquake to hit this area since the infamous Loma Prieta Earthquake in October 1989 that brought a halt to the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics.

The Powers survived, but the same cannot be said for their hotel room — it was completely trashed by the quake with broken glass and other debris from nature’s fury.

“That earthquake was crazy, and we were in the epicenter,” Power said. “At first I thought, this is it – the Earth is coming to an end.

“It was one of the most frightening moments of my life, seriously. I woke up from deep sleep to wondering if this was it. Our room was absolutely destroyed.

“To think I am an IndyCar driver in a very risky job and the end wasn’t going to come in an earthquake, it makes me appreciate life when you have a moment like that when it happens. It puts things into perspective when I was back in last place.”

Dixon scores dramatic win in Sonoma as title contenders falter

While Power was able to accept the outcome that sets up for a dramatic finish, Castroneves was disappointed that his fight ended just a few turns after the race began. He was part of a Turn 2 crash that was triggered by contact with Dixon and James Hinchcliffe. Castroneves and Sebastien Bourdais were also involved.

The Team Penske crew had to replace the damaged nosecone on Castroneves’ car, but he was never a factor for the remainder of the race.

“That sucks,” Castroneves said. “I’m very disappointed. Right at the beginning of the race. I was patient, got hit from the side then got hit from the back and it was a very bad situation. It was over for us at that point. There was nothing we could do. It was disappointing for my boys. We are not giving up. We are still 50 points behind, but the last three races have been bad for us.

“For me, when I saw Will Power back there, it didn’t change much for me because it wasn’t going to make much of a difference in the championship. Now, we have to be in the right spot and see what happens. We were waiting for a brake and never had it. We had a fast car to keep moving forward but it was very frustrating. Right now I will be upset but we have to move to Fontana and keep our heads up.”

Power’s incident came on Lap 40 after three laps of caution. He was on cold tires and when he hit the throttle the tires did not have the grip that caused him to lose control.

“I was just tired,” Power said. “Everyone was boxed up, I didn’t want to go to the inside of Scott Dixon, so I held back, just touched the throttle and it was so easy how it went around. I thought somebody hit me. I couldn’t believe it.

“Now, it’s double points, man. I’m going to have to do well.”

Team Penske president Tim Cindric is in charge of looking at the big picture. He also calls the race strategy for Power and believes the damage was minimized significantly to what it could have been.

“It could have been a lot better; it could have been a lot worse but all things considered we have a bigger points lead than we did coming in here if you look at the overall picture,” Cindric said. “He did a pretty good job keeping his cool and his head in the game and we’ll go to Fontana and battle it out. We just have to keep fighting.

“When your bad days aren’t terrible that’s the difference in a championship. That is what has caught us out in other years when our bad days were worse than everybody else’s bad days.

“Hopefully, we can stay clear of it for one more race at Fontana.”

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