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May 14, 2016
August 28, 2014 | By IMS
The title drought for Team Penske appears to be nearing the end.
Will Power and Helio Castroneves have stacked runner-up championship finishes like spent tires in the Verizon IndyCar Series with three apiece and five of those coming in the last six years, but come Saturday night the storyline could finally be different.
The season concludes with the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, California (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), and Power and Castroneves are one-two in the battle to give owner Roger Penske his first championship since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.
“It’s obviously been a very strong year for Roger and a long time coming,” Power said. “Now we’re finally in a position for the team to do it, and for me, personally, I want to do it as well.”
The Australian is in the catbird seat, leading Castroneves by 51 points and needing to finish sixth or better to clinch the title. Castroneves needs to win the race and have Power finish seventh or worse to overcome the deficit and win the crown himself.
Simon Pagenaud has a longshot chance in the double-points finale, needing a win plus a terrible night from Power and an off-the-podium finish from Castroneves. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon were title-eligible at the start of the week but essentially had their hopes dashed when Power’s No. 12 Verizon hauler pulled into ACS. (Power gets points for practicing on Friday, which eliminates the two former Indianapolis 500 champions.)
If Power runs anywhere near as well as he did at Fontana last year, the title fight will be a walkover. Last year, he won from the pole in the 500-mile finale, a breakthrough for the driver who had always been more of a threat on road and street courses.
“I had always been competitive on oval tracks and I enjoyed the racing, but to crack that win was a confidence thing,” Power said in USA Today. “Now I know I can do it, and I feel as though it has become one of my strengths. When you get to that point, you know you’re on the right track. Before, it was hit and miss. Now I know I have a chance to win on every track on the schedule, and that’s what you have to have to win an INDYCAR championship.”
True to his career form, Power won the 2014 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg in the Firestone Grand Prix and then the first race of the Chevrolet Indy Dual at Detroit. But he also finished second on the high-speed oval at Texas Motor Speedway and, earlier this month, won the ABC Supply Wisconsin 250 on the Milwaukee Mile oval.
Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and long an oval ace, moved to the top of the points standings in July with a runner-up finish at Pocono and held the top spot through three more races. But he lost the lead to Power after finishing 19th at Mid-Ohio, then fell further back with an 11th at Milwaukee and 18th last week at Sonoma.
“Yeah, very disappointed in the last three races,” said Castroneves, who will drive the No. 3 AAA Insurance car at Auto Club Speedway. “The Milwaukee race, we’re still trying to understand why we didn’t have the performance the same as Will and (teammate) Juan Pablo (Montoya), and last weekend unfortunately right at the start of the race having (Sebastian) Bourdais throwing a strike right at the beginning.
“So that frustrates you, but you can’t just let those bits bite you. We’ve just got to move on, and we still have one more race which is double points and 500 miles, so anything can happen.”
Anything can happen, but Pagenaud needs darn near everything to happen to take the title from his spot at 81 points behind Power – starting with winning the race.
“Well, it’s pretty simple,” said the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton driver. “I just have to go into the weekend very focused on trying to be competitive and go into the race thinking to win the race – that’s the only way I could have a chance to win the championship. I don’t have any pressure.”
The pressure is on the Team Penske teammates, but the numbers are on their side. And if it breaks their way, the end number will finally be 1.