WILLY P'S GOT HIS MOJO WORKIN'
Lost within the controversial penalty at Sonoma that dropped Scott Dixon to the back of the field with 15 laps to go was the fact that Will Power was on a serious charge to challenge Dixie for the lead.
By the numbers, and when they were running 1-2, Power had the measure of the race leader toward the end of each stint, and although we'll never know if the Aussie would have gotten by the Kiwi during the final laps, it would be unfair to paint Power's win as nothing more than a gift from Race Control. Could he have actually passed Dixon – who knows? But on pace alone, the sprint to the checkered flag would have been fascinating to watch.
The difference in tire consumption between the two cars really came to light towards the end of their run to the second pit stop. With the two on used reds, Power drew Dixon's nearly two-second lead down to 0.7sec in a handful of laps before they stopped for tires and fuel. Power took on used blacks while Dixon had a new set, and utilized that edge in the race to the next stop.
Despite the car/crewman contact that occurred during their final trip to the pits, Power emerged with new reds while Dixon took on a used set, which could have tipped the balance in Power's favor. It was rendered moot with Dixie's drive-through, but Power felt like he might have had an answer for his rival without it.
“His rear tires were going off really badly and he got very loose at the end of stints,” said Power, who earned his 19th Indy car win on Sunday. “At the end of the black-tire stint, he was really struggling, and yeah, I think we had something for him, but that's impossible to tell. On that last restart, my team told me he was probably going to be penalized, so I didn't attack too hard on new tires because it's not worth it. But I knew he was in the championship and I have nothing to lose but to go for wins so I was going to be very aggressive at the end of the race. If he hadn't been penalized, it would have been interesting. The No. 9 car was strong in the beginning of stints and we were very strong from halfway through to the end.”
Dixon, understandably, didn't necessarily agree with the Power-might-have-won-on-his-own hypothesis.
“Strategically, we made the car fast for the first 15 laps and then sort of maintained it,” he said. “I don't think at any point we were really trying to drive away; we were just trying to maintain pace. The only time it got a little tricky was when Justin [Wilson] went on the reds and we were on blacks. So that was fun but, I think where the last yellow had fallen when I was still leading, we were in the right situation to win the race. Sure, you get to the last five laps of the stint and the tires fall off a lot anyway, but the car was strong most of the time. Maybe it did fall off a little bit more than some of the others, but generally we were quick enough to be up front all day until that was taken away from us.”
Dixon and his Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti had the fastest cars from Sonoma's Wednesday test day onwards, claiming an all-Target front row in qualifying and leading 42 of the race's 85 laps, but the sustainability of that pace became problematic. Franchitti led the first 17 laps from pole (BELOW) but struggled to post the same lap times in traffic, and Dixon had his late-stint degradation, but Power and his Verizon Team Penske engineer David Faustino seemed to find a happier middle ground to work from. The No. 12 Verizon Wireless car might not have been as fast in a lap-for-lap duel in every phase of the race but, according to Power, the choice to aim for a faster average speed over those 85 laps was the right call to make.
“We actually changed our philosophy quite a bit after qualifying,” he confirmed. “When I was on blacks in those qualifying rounds, the back of the car was a problem and so hard to drive, but on reds, it settled down and I was fine. For the warm-up, we made a pretty big change and then went a little bit more in that direction after the warm-up, and we thought if maybe we'd done that in qualifying, the car wouldn't be so hard to drive. Overall, we took things in a direction that was going to be fast but more consistent for the race and that helped quite a lot.”
Winning his first race since Brazil in April 2012 could be just the mental boost Power and the No. 12 team have needed to get back to their old form of dominating on most road and street courses.
“Yeah, it's just amazing that bad results – basically being on pace but not getting the wins like we used to – does actually wear on your confidence,” he mused. “It's such a big deal, winning a race; it boosts your confidence. You feel that, for whatever reason, when you struggle you're just lost. You start asking what's wrong with yourself. And sometimes you get a bit lost in the setup side of things where you're actually struggling. It snowballs.
“Confidence is a big deal in racing and Sonoma was probably one of the most fun races I've had in IndyCar this year – rubbing and banging and good, hard racing. That's the way I want it to be.”
One final note on the Dixon/Power pit stop incident. We head to Baltimore this weekend where, based on qualifying positions at Sonoma where Dixon was P2 and Power was P3, Dixon will be pitted directly in front of Power. I can only assume that, with the cramped pit lane behind Camden Yards, and Race Control watching how the two teams interact after leaving California, every effort will be made by Dixon's crew to make room for Power to exit cleanly throughout the weekend.