During the series' open test in late February, Power, Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe were 1-2-3 for The Captain's team and, despite the track and ambient temperatures forecast to be vastly different on race day than they were for those preposterously cold test days, we can expect all three to contend for victory. What's more of a worry, to Penske and to any team, is what they can't control…
“It's going to be down to whoever reads the strategy the best when we get full-course cautions,” says Power, “and, unfortunately, that's down to pure luck. I think people are gonna get bunched up in a train of cars, and they'll roll the dice and go off-strategy and just hope it ends up falling their way with full-course yellows. There's nothing we can do about that sort of thing – except to put the Verizon car at the front and be fast, so we have more options if it does all kick off and start getting crazy with people spinning and stalling and so on.”
So Barber will be hard to race on, but will it be hard to drive?
“Hmm...I think it's going to be a physically tough circuit, especially in qualifying when you're doing constant new-tire runs, and you've got that maximum g-force pulling at you and the steering's really weighted up with grip. In St. Pete, Firestone brought a red [option tire] that was really soft – I mean, it went off quicker than a lot of us were expecting, so if you didn't look after them, you'd be in trouble – but man, they offered a lot of grip when they were at their best! You could really lean on them.
“Isn't it great when the reds behave so differently from the blacks, though?” he adds. “Us drivers don't all drive the same way, and obviously not all our setups are the same, so it's like Firestone has emphasized those variables and doing that has helped the series by creating more racing and passing. On Tuesday, I watched St. Pete on television, and I think we all put on a good show again.
“But like I say, there isn't going to be a lot of passing at Barber, so we're all going to be focusing on qualifying. To be honest, we don't do any real race-setup work until the Sunday morning warm-up, anyhow. We don't have enough sets of tires available to use Friday and Saturday practice to do any long runs.”
With the teams focused on qualifying, Power is expecting a fierce fight to get through to the Firestone Fast Six and, ultimately, scrap for pole position.
“Well, obviously, Ryan and Helio are going to be tough, and I'm not just saying that because they're my teammates. Everyone knows how quick they are and they're in Penskes, so it kinda goes without saying. Obviously, I'm guessing Dario [Franchitti] and Scotty Dog [that's Dixon to you or I] will be right up there too, because we haven't all compared on a road course yet, except that test two months ago. Penske and Ganassi don't know how we compare to each other on anything except street circuits yet. But Dixon and Franchitti are both double IndyCar champions and they're in Ganassi cars so, you know, you're talking about pretty good quality opposition there!
“But I think we've all seen there are a lot of good cars, like at KV Racing: I bet you Sato is going to be pretty quick around Barber, because it's more like a European-style track and he was top six in the test there. And Viso's been looking strong, too. The two Dreyer & Reinbold guys as well: You can almost guarantee Justin Wilson's gonna be fighting in the Fast Six every time because, man, that guy's just a great driver. Then there's Hunter-Reay, Kanaan and Marco in the Andretti cars, too. Er…so how many have I listed there? Like I say, this is a seriously competitive championship. You can't afford to slip up.”
Both the first two rounds have been afflicted by rain and, at present, the forecast is for showers in Birmingham, Ala., at some point over the weekend. That throws an unknown quantity in the mix, as rain will surely increase the likelihood of full-course cautions at inopportune moments, but according to Power, it shouldn't cause the teams major headaches.
“The straights are short at Barber, so we're probably going to run pretty much maximum downforce anyway,” says Power. “If it rains, apart from sticking on a set of wet-weather tires and maybe cranking a bit more front wing on, I don't think there will be much more we can do. At least drainage shouldn't be a big problem on a real road course."
Power tends to assume nothing (or as he puts it, “I try and be prepared for anything and everything, mate!”) so he doesn't want to consider the possibilities of winning three races in a row until – if – it happens. Imagine how much he'd cringe, then, if it was pointed out to him that those back-to-back-to-back winners mentioned earlier – Wheldon in '05, Bourdais in '06 – went on to win their respective titles. Even two consecutive wins has caused some premature prognostications from certain people who should know better.
“It's kinda interesting, isn't it, that winning the first two races seems to give you a lot more attention than if you get back-to-back wins at the end of a season or in the middle,” muses Power. “It's like our Verizon car has suddenly become everyone's target! I suppose that's nice, but I tell you, I'm always going to stay realistic about it. Everything – everything – has to go your way to win, and that's what I've been trying to tell all the media guys who've been banging on about this. I really believe the IZOD IndyCar Series is the most competitive open-wheel series in the world this year, because we've got so many good drivers in good cars.
“So, that's why we need to keep executing at this level. If we – and I mean me, the strategists, the crew, the whole Verizon Team Penske operation – have covered everything that's in our power to control each weekend, then we can't do much more except hope and pray, you know? Like I say – stay realistic. I go into each weekend thinking, ‘If I go fast, work hard and don't make mistakes, then that at least gives us a good chance.' That's what I'll be trying to do at Barber next week.”