IndyCar championship still up for grabs

During a practice session before last year’s IndyCar Series race at Infineon, Will Power was unable to get out of the way of the stalled Nelson Philippe and plowed into the Frenchman’s machine at nearly full speed coming out of the blind Turn 3A.

The horrific crash left both men with multiple injuries, including concussions for the both of them, two fractured vertebrae for Power and a fractured ankle for Philippe – who hasn’t been in another IZOD IndyCar Series race since.

Up to that point, Power had performed as well as he could have in a part-time role for Team Penske. He had been shifted over to a third Penske car at Long Beach when Helio Castroneves returned to the team and still finished second. He came home fifth at the Indianapolis 500. And at Edmonton, he dominated the field to claim his first series victory.

Earning a full-time ride with one of American racing’s flagship teams seemed the logical conclusion after all of that – at least, until the crash. But it turns out that Power didn’t need to worry about losing the biggest break of his racing career.

"The sort of the guy (team owner) Roger (Penske) is, he called me probably not long after I arrived at the hospital and said, ‘Look, don’t worry about it. We’ll look after you. We’ll have something for you next year, even if it’s not full-time,’" said Power. "That’s just the sort of guy he is, the sort of team he runs.

"It gives you confidence as a driver because I’ve been in so many situations in my career where you don’t feel that."

Eventually, Power became the third full-time driver at Team Penske. Since getting the nod, he’s run with the opportunity by claiming the 2010 IndyCar road/street course championship. And after winning his fifth race of the season on Sunday at Infineon, he’s put himself in a strong position to also take the overall drivers’ title (he’s now 59 points ahead of Dario Franchitti with four races to go).

"I watched this race from the hospital bed last year," he said. "You know, I said it all year: I’m coming back to win this thing because I thought this track owes me after what happened…I just went about my business, put my head down and did absolutely the best I could on every single lap, with fuel mileage, everything I could do."

But despite having steady confidence in both the abilities of himself and his team, he admitted that he wasn’t immune to thoughts of what happened to him one year ago at Turn 3A or being a little nervous as he approached the corner in his No. 12 Verizon machine.

"I just got down to business when I got out there," he said. "When I go over that hill each time, I’m aware. When I saw a little bit of dust or anything, I was a little bit hesitant. I just put my head down, did my job.

"I think as a driver, you need to learn to shut those things out and not let it affect you because you’re going to have a big accident, you’re going to have something happen during your career. It’s just part of what it is."

But now, Power will set his sights on the final four races of the season that will all come on ovals. It can’t be ignored that his title rival Franchitti has outscored him, 148-102, on the four speedway events that have been ran so far this season.

Franchitti scored one win and three top-5s in those events, while Power’s results were up and down: 12th, eighth, 14th and fifth. The former’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing team has also had success in the past at the four tracks left to go: Chicagoland, Kentucky, Motegi and Homestead.

"It’s a fairly large [points] deficit," said Franchitti on Sunday. "But it’s four tracks we’ve run well on. We’ve won at Chicago. Dixie won in Japan. We both won at Homestead, won at Kentucky as a team. I haven’t won at Kentucky personally. They’re places we can do very well at."

But even though he would appear to have the oval edge on paper, the Scotsman isn’t taking anything for granted.

"I don’t underestimate the challenge at all," he said. "Will is going to be quite strong. People are writing him off because of his lack of experience on the ovals, but he’ll be right up there. We have to do a better job. We’ll be pushing 100 percent."

While Power has earned the biggest win of his IndyCar career so far, Franchitti has by no means been dusted yet in their battle for the championship.

Buckle up. This is far from over.