Power pads series lead with win at Sonoma

Back broken, front teeth scattered somewhere, head ringing, Will
Power left the 2009 race at Infineon Raceway in a helicopter.

A year later, he walked away, a bit of payback and a trophy in
hand, his first series title well within reach.

Shaking off a touch of early anxiety, Power returned to Infineon
Raceway with a dominating win on Sunday, padding his IndyCar Series
lead on a course that nearly ended his career.

”Unbelievable. I watched this race from a hospital bed last
year,” Power said. ”I said it all year, I’m coming back to win
this because I thought this track owes me because of what
happened.”

Power was admittedly nervous when he first hit the gas pedal at
Infineon this week and felt a touch of anxiety every time he saw
dust fly over the hill where his back-breaking wreck took place in
2009.

He showed no fear once the racing started, though, setting an
IndyCar record with his eighth pole of 2010, then leading 73 of 75
laps over the technically demanding 2.303-mile circuit through the
hills of the California wine country.

Rarely challenged over the 12-turn, elevation-changing course,
Power has 59-point lead over defending series champion Dario
Franchitti heading into the season’s final four races. Ryan Briscoe
was fourth.

”It’s a fairly large deficit, but it’s four tracks we’ve run
well on,” said Franchitti, who finished third behind Chip Ganassi
Racing teammate Scott Dixon.

”There’s places we’ve done very well at. I don’t underestimate
the challenge. Will’s going to be very strong. A lot of people are
kind of writing him off because of his lack of experience on the
ovals, but I think he’ll be up there. We just have to do a better
job.”

Power’s last trip to Sonoma put his career in jeopardy.

Driving in a practice session last year, the Aussie came flying
over a hill and didn’t have time to react to Nelson Philippe’s
stalled car. Power hit him straight on and had to be airlifted from
the track, his back and teeth broken, the season over.

Team Penske stuck with Power through his long rehabilitation and
he’s rewarded the loyalty with an impressive third IndyCar
season.

The 29-year-old Power came into Sonoma with the inaugural
IndyCar Series road course championship locked up thanks to four
non-oval victories and had built a 41-point lead over Franchitti,
the defending series champion.

Power found speed when he needed it in knockout qualifying,
sneaking out of the second round with a fast last lap, then locking
up his record-breaking pole with another quick turn around the
hard-to-find speed course late in the final session.

Power didn’t let up during the race, peeling away from the green
and building a nearly 6 second lead before Milka Duno caused a
caution with a spinout on Lap 32. The lead was back up over 5
seconds after another caution, then Power lost it on Lap 56 when he
went into the pits and Dixon didn’t.

Two laps later, Dixon went into the pits and Power was back up
front, followed by Franchitti.

That was it.

Power gradually pushed the lead back up and Franchitti, after
chasing him most of the day, gave way to Dixon. Even with faster
red tires for his final stint, Dixon couldn’t help out his
teammate, unable to get around Power despite another pack-bunching
spinout and several passing attempts.

”We felt we were in a good position to maybe challenge Will and
get close to him and maybe win the race and take some points away
from him that way,” Dixon said. ”We didn’t have enough;
obviously, Will won the race. We probably didn’t help Dario’s
chances in that, so that was probably the downside to today.”

Power really wanted a win at Sonoma, in part because of last
year’s accident, but also because he’d like to build a little
points cushion with the season’s final four races, all on
ovals.

It’s not that Power can’t drive ovals. He’s been picking up the
nuances of turn-left-only racing, finishing eighth at Indy and
fifth at Iowa. Franchitti, though, is a going-in-circles vet, with
two Indianapolis 500 titles under the hood, so the more padding
Power can get going into those final races, the better.

A sixth career victory and a comfortable into-the-stretch lead
should help.

”I definitely don’t think this championship is mine. There’s a
lot of racing to go,” Dixon said. ”In four races, a lot can
happen and you can lose a lot of that (points) in a hurry. I want
to win a championship.”

He’s a step closer, a bad memory in his rearview mirror, no
less.

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