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People asked me after Sonoma whether I thought the championship was virtually won, with a 36-point lead in the points standings with two rounds to go. The answer was, “No way!” And the result in Baltimore proved why you never count anyone out of the running; no one on the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car assumes anything is won until it's won.
The near misses hurt and then make you stronger. If someone had spun me on the first lap at Sonoma, and I'd come through the field to finish second, that would be one thing. But we had the strongest car of the weekend, led from pole and kept everyone at arm's length without stressing the tires until a caution period late in the race. That seemed like it would benefit us but on my out-lap after the final pit stop, I ended up behind backmarkers who just wouldn't get a move on, even though it was the perfect opportunity for them to get their lap back – weird. And obviously, being under yellow, I wasn't allowed to pass them and so we got jumped by the second-placed guy because the pits had remained open this time.
At least that second-placed guy was my Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe who went on to win. I'd have been gutted for Roger (Penske) if some other team had benefited from a weekend in which the Penske guys had given us the three fastest cars!
I'm certainly not blameless in finishing second. A couple of times after the restart, I hit the pit lane speed-limiter instead of the push-to-pass button which is why on a couple of turns, I had Dario Franchitti all over me like a cheap suit. Come to think of it, Dario must have been wondering what the hell I was doing, but I can assure you that I wasn't just trying to make the race more entertaining for the pair of us!
I can also assure you that I wouldn't have tried any low-percentage moves on Ryan: He's a teammate. I'd have needed a really good run before committing to the pass, and Sonoma is a tricky place to make that happen without the cooperation of the guy in front. And the delay on the activation of the push-to-pass – whether it was five seconds at Mid-Ohio or 3.5 seconds at Sonoma – was just bizarre and too non-instinctive. I don't think there's a single driver who wasn't pleased that idea was dropped for Baltimore.
In Baltimore, we were fastest in qualifying by a decent margin, and Ryan Hunter-Reay was somewhere outside the top 10 due to his Q1 session being red-flagged early because of an accident. That should have presented us with an ideal chance to capitalize, but an inspired call by Michael Andretti under caution in wet/dry conditions sent Hunter-Reay toward the front and miscommunication between (race strategist) Tim Cindric and myself meant we got shuffled back after a pit stop. I admit that it was fun working our way through the field and we got up to fifth. But the final restart, with two laps to go, saw Hunter-Reay jump past my teammate, Briscoe, while I was being so careful not to be hit down at Turn 1 that I lost a place to Rubens Barrichello.
The gap between myself and Hunter-Reay is now 17 points with just one race to go at Auto Club Speedway. Are we going to just go for points now? Well, we've been going for the win for the past five races and missed out and had to settle for points, so maybe the reverse will be true if we go for just a safe points finish…
But seriously, you shouldn't do anything different than you would normally. Driving in a cautious way – if it's a way that is not your natural style – is when you can get caught out or tangled up with someone else. Racing is about winning, and every time we're at an event, I want the pole position and the win. I want it as much for my No. 12 Verizon crew as I do for me: they give me the best car they can, I drive the best I can, and I want the result of that to be a trip to Victory Lane. And I know that every other driver out there wants the same thing so the only way to beat them is do a better job as a group.
Some say, “Consistency is how you win championships.” But it's not how we want to win a championship – unless we're talking about consistently winning races, obviously…. We all get a lift when our reward equals our effort – Cindric, (engineer) Dave Faustino, (chief mechanic) Billy Vincent and all the Verizon Team Penske guys get a thrill out of going to Victory Lane, and we haven't been there since April. We've had pole for the last three races, and yet someone else has finished first.
That proves how amazingly competitive the IZOD IndyCar Series is. The Dallara DW12 was a new car for this year, and some people thought that the biggest teams would just pull away from the smaller teams. But in fact it did what IndyCar said it would, and put everyone back at ground zero. Look how strong some of the smaller teams have been. That's a great advertisement for IndyCar to attract new teams and top drivers.
However annoyed I get when a win goes missing, I know a lot of drivers would love to have the opportunity to drive for Verizon Team Penske, so it's important to keep it all in perspective. Every front-runner can say, “If only I hadn't been hit by someone at this race, had an engine failure at that race, had a pit stop issue at this race, had better strategy at that race…” That's true of any championship campaign: if you look back, your head gets full of not just the days you won but also the ones that got away.
That's why we have to keep looking ahead and not think about stuff like that. So this weekend I look forward to us attacking Auto Club Speedway with our usual determination and careful planning. It looks like the wing package should reward the best drivers with the best-handling cars, the same as at Texas this year. So I hope I can go for pole, go for the win and do what comes naturally. That's what I expect of myself, it's what Roger and Tim and Verizon and all our sponsors expect. You start slipping a percentage in the IndyCar field and you will get swamped. As far I'm concerned, it's time to attack every time that Chevy behind my shoulders is fired up.
Thanks for reading. Hope to see you at Fontana!
Follow Will on Twitter at @12WillPower and follow Team Penske at @PenskeRacing and at www.PenskeRacing.com and Verizon Wireless USA at @VerizonWireless