Preview: Contenders, pretenders heading into IndyCar race at Milwaukee

Milwaukee is one of three races remaining on the 2014 IndyCar Series schedule.

When it comes to domination at The Milwaukee Mile, Michael Andretti raced his way to victory lane five times as a driver and celebrated five more times as a team owner. That is why entering Sunday’s race  Andretti’s driver Ryan Hunter-Reay appeared to be the championship contender to watch because he has won this race the past two years.

Not so fast.

Andretti Autosport’s past dominance meant nothing in Saturday’s qualifications at the Milwaukee Mile. Marco Andretti is the highest starting Andretti driver in nith place. James Hinchcliffe, the fastest driver in Saturday’s first practice session, crashed in practice No. 2 and put his team behind as they repaired the race car before qualifcations. He starts 13th.

Hunter-Reay had one of the most disappointing qualifications of his season and starts 19th with Andretti Autosport rookie Carlos Munoz starting 20th in the 22-car field that takes the green flag at this historic short oval at 3:45 p.m. ET.

"We just missed the balance entirely today in qualifying – it wasn’t even close,” Hunter-Reay said. “Unfortunately, we are going to have to pay for it in the race. I just hope we get out of the first couple of stints on the lead lap the way things are going right now. We’ve had great cars here in the past, but just missed it here in qualifying. It’s pretty frustrating but we can rebound in the race."

The driver starting on the pole is the leader of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship – Team Penske’s Will Power.

In a series where the season championship is often determine by one or two points, Team Penske driver Will Power realizes that every point counts. That is why Saturday’s pole for Sunday’s short oval race was so big.

“I’ve lost the championship by two points and four points, so they all add up in the end,” Power said. “There’s obviously still a lot of points on the table.  But they all count.”

Officially, Power’s one point for the pole won’t be awarded until after Sunday’s race. He enters the contest with a four-point lead over teammate Helio Castroneves and a 63-point lead over defending race winner Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport.

It was Power’s third Verizon P1 Award of the season as he recorded a two-lap average of 169.262 mph. It was also the 35th pole of his career.

"It’s just a great start to the three-race chase, you could say, for the championship finish," Power said. "It’s traditionally a track position race. In practice it was definitely hard to pass so I can see you’re going to be in traffic all day."

Factoring in the one-point bonus for winning the pole that gives Power a five-point lead over Castroneves, who qualified eighth with a two-lap average speed of 167.561 mph. Both Power and Castroneves use Chevrolet engines.

Power entered the series back in 2008 and within a few seasons quickly established himself as IndyCar’s “King of the Road” but struggled on the ovals. He finally won an oval track race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011 and mastered the big ovals with a win at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California last October.

All that is missing from Power’s resume is a short oval win and a series championship – and a victory at Milwaukee on Sunday could go a long way toward both.

“Obviously a win would be phenomenal as far as the championship goes,” Power said. “It would just be cool to get a win on a short oval, as well. There is just no other way to approach it but just be smart and keep your head down lap by lap.  That’s all you can do. You can’t even think about the overall picture — Just head down.”

Power has a best finish of third in five starts at Milwaukee.

"I’ve been in this situation quite a few times. So has Helio and Juan (Pablo Montoya) as well," said Power, who was the championship runner-up three consecutive seasons. "But IndyCar is like that these days. It’s very tight. It’s so unpredictable. With three to go, I just think anything can happen. You just got to keep your head in the game and keep focused. That’s my plan."

Tony Kanaan, a two-time Milwaukee winner, starts on the outside of the front row in the No. 10 Chevrolet for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing with a two-lap average of 168.662 mph. He has six top-five finishes in his last nine starts at Milwaukee and drove to back-to-back victories here in 2006 and 2007. He also finished second in 2012.

Kanaan continues to believe Andretti Autosport drivers will be a factor on Sunday.

“They’re still going to be guys to watch in the race,” Kanaan said. “I don’t know what happened in qualifying. It’s been a long time that I’ve been there. They were always good. 

“It’s so easy, like Will was saying. Nowadays, you make one little thing, you think it’s a little change, it becomes a huge one. It can be good and can be really bad. I really don’t know. I was also surprised, for sure, especially with Hinch. But when you hit the wall in the last session, you don’t have time to do at least another lap, although we’re pretty good, it’s always tricky just to go out there and try to do it again.”

Simon Pagenaud, who is fourth in the standings, qualified 16th and Juan Pablo Montoya, who is fifth in the standings, qualified third (168.579). Pagenaud is in a Honda and Montoya a Chevrolet.

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Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time.

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