So now, Will Power is an oval race winner, too. The IZOD IndyCar Series' kingpin on road and street courses had the chops and the car to do it last season – notably at Indy, Texas, Chicago and Kentucky – but bad luck, slow pit stops, and tactics that didn't work with the way the yellows fell all prevented a win. But it was only a matter of time before everything came together. Power drives a Penske-run Dallara, makes few mistakes, doesn't back down from wheel-to-wheel situations and is intimidated by nothing. Those four attributes were virtual guarantees that he'd eventually have his name on at least one of the ovals' list of winners.
The Ganassi drivers being relegated to starting 18th (Scott Dixon) and 28th (Dario Franchitti) in the second race at Texas was helpful, of course, but it was Power alone who was a threat to them in the first race and he should have at least split them.
“Yeah, there was a pit stop problem which let Dixon get ahead of me,” says Power, “but I think Scott might have had a faster car than Dario. Once I caught back up with them, I realized Dixon was lifting in order to stay behind him. So, in my case, it would have been about finding the right opportunity to get around Dario, which is tricky there. I mean, Ganassi is just very strong on 1.5-milers, and if the quickest line around there is the shortest one, it's got to be an outside pass, like I did on [Tony] Kanaan in race 2.
“Fortunately, there are only two 1.5-milers left – Kentucky and Vegas – and it's now more about being quick on short ovals: Milwaukee, Iowa and Loudon. But obviously Dario and Scott are going to be strong there, too. They're fast, mistake-free drivers in great cars. They are the top opposition throughout a championship fight.”
The Milwaukee Mile, scene of the series' seventh event this weekend, is the track that Power admits he expected to be the first oval that would play to his known strengths, because of its similarities to a very fast road course. In the recent test, he was fastest, and he has always shown well there. In 2006, his first oval event, he qualified fifth in the Walker Racing Champ Car. In '08 with KV Racing, he started fourth. (2009 he missed, of course, as he was just a part-timer for Penske back then.)
“Milwaukee is a great track, I love it,” he says. “It's a challenge because you can really race there. I hope we'll find it's two lanes and that there won't be too many marbles because theoretically you can pull off inside or outside passes at Milwaukee, because you're not flat on the throttle the whole time. But there's going to be a lot of quick cars. Ryan [Briscoe] is really good there, and if Ganassi gives Dario a solid car, he's going to be quick, too. So are Scott and Helio, obviously. Oriol [Servia] and Newman/Haas have been good there, so now they're together, they should be a strong combination. Tag [Alex Tagliani] and I were teammates in '06 so I know how quick he is there. And Marco should be good as well. He's been on pole at Milwaukee.
“That's the thing about this series this year. There aren't drivers who haven't earned their ride. They're all good, and the gap to Penske and Ganassi has closed. Look at how good Andretti Autosport was in Long Beach, or how good Newman/Haas and KV have been at times. That's what I love: competition, man. It makes every driver and every engineer work harder, think harder, come up with ideas to improve and get even better. Go into the fine details.”
Sooner or later in any racing conversation with Power, the word “details” will emerge. It's the word Will Power uses when asked about how he manages to find those extra tenths in qualifying on a road or street course. It's what he's looking for when he watches replays of previous years' races as preparation for a race weekend. It's one of the (many) things he loves about going racing with Team Penske, where the meticulous nature of Roger Penske pervades down through team president Tim Cindric to the engineers, mechanics, – hell, probably even the janitors back at the Charlotte, N.C., shop. When Penske fails to execute (the team's word) in taking advantage of some of the best cars in IndyCar racing, it's very rarely down to lack of effort in preparation. It will be because of the similarly impressive (but dissimilar in style) Chip Ganassi Racing has out-thought them, out-researched them or executed that little bit better.
But “details,” as Power uses the term, is also a euphemism. It covers everything he does that has made him the man to beat on road and street courses. It covers the line that he takes through corners, how he brakes, how he turns in, how he exits. It covers, too, the minimalization of mistakes. That, too, is a Power strength. Every circuit is divided into multiple segments by IndyCar's timing and scoring staff. A team can then take these sector times for each driver on each lap and compile them into his or her perfect lap – the dream scenario where a driver's quickest times in each sector came on the same lap. It would be a shock to discover that anyone comes closer – and more often – to achieving that ideal lap than Power. Franchitti, possibly.
Of course, there will be anomalies: occasionally a team will make a change that sacrifices a tenth of a second in one sector in order to gain two in another. No gain without pain. And occasionally Power will make errors. That lap at Sonoma last year that earned him his eighth pole of the season? Not one of his proudest moments, yet one that in fact proved what reserves he has. For the public, on TV, the laps are broken down into just three sectors (the split times), and Will had found sector 1 tricky all weekend, and in sector 2 he dropped a wheel off and had therefore lost some traction on the exit of a corner. Into sector 3 of this scruffy qualifying run, he was therefore behind his very on-form teammate Helio Castroneves on the splits. Yet he made up 0.2sec in the final sector and snatched pole by less than four-hundredths of a second from the three-time Indy 500 winner. That wasn't details. That was do-or-die.
Generally, though, Power's errors don't come at crucial moments. His brush with the wall in the finale at Homestead last year came in a last desperate attempt to carry the car; infamously, that's near-impossible on an oval, yes, but all other options had gone. He could see the faster Ganassi machines, along with his championship chances, disappearing into the distance.
In their post-race gloom, Roger Penske, Cindric, Power and company trotted out the usual boilerplate, along the lines of, “This will make us even more determined, we'll come back even harder next year,” etc. But in their case, it wasn't just spiel. The Verizon No. 12 Penske appears increasingly unbeatable on road and street courses this year in qualifying and, if things go smoothly, in the race, too. Even his teammates, his direct point of comparison, have been struggling. Briscoe has, through reverting to left-foot braking like Power, gained an advantage over Castroneves, but has gained nothing on his other teammate. At St. Petersburg, Power and Briscoe were more than 0.6sec apart; at Barber 0.28; at Long Beach 0.47 (in the same session – Briscoe got blocked on his quickest run in Q2 and didn't make it through to the Fast Six); at Sao Paulo 0.49. Castroneves, meanwhile, has yet to get within half a second of Power in a qualifying run this year.
If Penske had a sizable car advantage, those gaps wouldn't be quite so alarming to the Penske team, but such is the competitiveness of the IndyCar field in 2011, a gap that size can now be filled by several competitors from rival teams. As well as the inevitable Franchitti/Dixon combo, so, too, there are Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway and sometimes Andretti from Andretti Autosport; there's Justin Wilson of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and there's Servia. Nor can you discount Tony Kanaan if KV Racing gives him a setup he likes. That's why Castroneves twice in those opening races has failed to make the Fast Six.
Power, interestingly, doesn't revel in the reduction in his intra-team rivalry. “Nah, I loved the fact that Ryan was so quick through practice at Long Beach, for example, and I was annoyed that we couldn't go head to head in the Fast Six because he didn't get a clear lap in Q2. Some people thought I'd been sandbagging through practice, but actually Ryan was just faster. And there was an example of me using his data to improve my performance, and I did the same again in Sao Paulo. Ryan and I have been pushing each other along this year because we have similar driving styles and car setups. At Long Beach, we felt we got the maximum from the car that weekend, because we were quicker than each other in different parts of the circuit, and afterward we put the data together and saw where we could each improve. I love that stuff.
“That's what you expect when you join a team like Penske; that you'll have top-quality teammates and when you pool all the information, there'll be something each of you can use. Look what's happened at Andretti Autosport now that Conway's joined: Hunter-Reay's a consistent threat, and the pair of them are improving Marco's performances, too. They're all gaining data from each other. That's healthy; it pushes a team along…as much as a driver hates getting out-qualified by a teammate.”
That's something that hasn't happened to Power on a road or street course since St. Petersburg in 2009, his first race for Penske, when he started sixth to Briscoe's fourth. This year, he's yet to start behind his teammates at any type of circuit, having started as top Penske for both the Indy 500 and at Texas Motor Speedway. But he's not satisfied with that either.
“That doesn't really mean anything when all three of us were lacking that bit of speed at Indy to beat the Ganassi or Sam Schmidt cars on Pole Day. And, at Texas, qualifying doesn't mean a lot, either. It's just about taking the shortest route around the track, and you only need a change in the wind direction and cars with the same setup are going to be setting different times. It's all about the race, and the great thing is, we finished pretty well as a team that night.”