Will Power is in a familiar spot with two IZOD IndyCar Series races remaining. What's different is the championship front runner's mindset, which developed through the down-to-the-wire chase in 2010 to now be consistent with the two other title contenders.
Power is focused on the body of work of Verizon Team Penske – the qualifying and race setups, error-free pit stops, race management and, of course, the results – and not the competition.
Entering the penultimate race of the 2010 season, the Verizon Team Penske driver led Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing by 17 points. The gap was whittled to 12 points with one to go, and Power fell five points shy of his first title following contact in the season finale that netted 25th place on the Homestead-Miami Speedway oval.
This year it's an 11-point margin with races on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway (Oct. 2) and Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16) on deck. Franchitti's teammate, two-time series champion Scott Dixon, is still in the hunt 59 points arrears. Every IZOD IndyCar Series championship has been decided in the finale since 2006.
"The person who has the most pressure on them is the person who puts it on themselves," said Power, who has one oval victory (Texas Race 2 in June) among the 15 in his Indy car career. "It's taxing if you think about it, but you just think about the job at hand. Someone had to tell me I'm in the lead. In the last five races, I haven't thought about points at all. I've just gone out and done my job as best I possibly could.
"Everything else is out of my control. I can't control what other people do and I can't control what happens during a race with other competitors or Race Control. I reckon you have to have gone through it one or two times to understand how you need to be mentally. Last year was definitely that. It's definitely different this year – a lot of thought on what I'm doing and not on what other people are doing.
"To me, it's just another two races. The key is to finish ahead of the 10 car in both of them. It's as simple as that."
Not so simple in practice, obviously, with Franchitti accumulating half of his 30 Indy car victories (15) on ovals. There's also the wild card of 29 cars entered for the Kentucky Indy 300 and more than 30 expected to compete in the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Last year at Kentucky, Power started on the front row and finished eighth.
"I feel very comfortable on mile-and-a-half ovals; it's definitely my strength in oval racing," Power continued. "If we can have the speed we had last year, considering what the tires are this year, I'd be very happy. I think last year we had the car to win. A little mistake on the out lap cost us probably six or seven positions. We have it; we just have to do the job."
Franchitti, a three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion who's been racing Indy cars since 1997, maintains a similar approach.
"Pressure is part of this job," said Franchitti, who has oval victories at Texas and Milwaukee this season. "It's been part of this job, I think, since I sat in a go-kart when I was 10 years old, so I know what I have to do. I put the pressure on myself. The members of Team Target know what they have to do; they put the pressure on themselves as well.
"It's going to be an interesting couple of weeks. You're not racing one or two guys; you're racing the whole field, especially on the one-and-half-mile track. We'll do the same thing as we've done the last three or four years, which is ultimately go out and there do our best and see how it ends up."
Franchitti relinquished the championship points lead with an eighth place on the Twin Ring Motegi road course Sept. 18, while Power finished runner-up to Dixon.
"We've definitely let some of that lead go through my mistake last week, some bad luck and some other stuff but I think the difference with last year is the first time I was ahead of Will was at the end of the last race," Franchitti said. "He's now ahead of me. It's very doable so we'll see if we can get it done.
"In 2009, between Ryan Briscoe, Scott and myself, (the points lead) literally changed every week. So you learn to almost ignore these things and just focus on doing the job and putting the championship out of your mind. If you do a good job, you win the championship."
Dixon, whose approach also has been sharpened by championship battles, could be the spoiler. He won at Kentucky Speedway from the pole in 2008, and acknowledges having the least amount of pressure.
"Will has learned a lot, especially on the ovals, which is going to make this championship even tougher," said Dixon, who tested along with the other two title contenders at the track Sept. 23. "It's never easy, and you're never really out of it until you're mathematically out of it. When you have a bad day, you try to get the most points you can. Dario has had a very consistent season.
"For me, I've been in the last five championship battles all the way down to the bitter end and it's exciting. Maybe not for the driver, who would want to run away with it. Anything can take it away from you. It can be frustrating, but everybody knows it's racing and it's a team sport and everything has to be covered 100 percent. I think it's exciting."