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IndyCar driver close, but can’t close out title

Published: Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 11:21 p.m. CST
Caption
(Elijah Nouvelage)
AP Will Power leads the way on turn three during an IndyCar series auto race on Sunday in Sonoma, Calif.

It was just past 3 a.m. when Will Power was awakened from a deep sleep on the top floor of his hotel in Napa, California. The IndyCar Series points leader was in the middle of his first earthquake and wasn't certain he was going to make it out alive.

Power had never before been in an earthquake, and the magnitude-6.0 quake shaking wine country on race day morning terrified the Australian.

"I looked at (wife) Liz and I said, 'This is it! This is the end of the world!'" Power said Monday in a telephone interview. Glass shattered around him, the power went out and the smoke alarms began to blare. Power said he could smell gas and feared the building was going to collapse.

He pulled on a pair of jeans before he headed down one floor to search for his mother, who was in the United States celebrating her 70th birthday by attending her first IndyCar race. She'd already evacuated her room, so Power headed outside into the darkness.

There he found frightened teammate Helio Castroneves, clad only in the complimentary hotel bathrobe, and Team Penske President Tim Cindric, who was calm and collected and already plotting their next move. Power said Cindric collected their car keys from the valet stand and, after it was clear to return to the damaged hotel to grab their belongings, everyone headed to Sonoma Raceway to attempt to get a little more sleep.

Power thought for sure Sunday's race would be canceled.

"Helio and I, we're thinking, we had a near-death experience, there's no way there's going to be a race," he said.

The Team Penske group had been very near the epicenter. Other drivers, such as eventual race winner Scott Dixon, slept through the shaking totally oblivious of the earthquake.

That's not Power's luck, though, and long before the race even went green, many began to snicker that the earthquake had been Mother Nature's way of denying the hard-luck driver yet another championship. He thought he was going to die at 3:20 a.m., there was no way he'd be focused to race 8 hours later.

Somehow, he pulled it off and he was ready to go. He was cool and in control as he started from the pole and seemed to be out for an easy Sunday drive, in a race that should have pretty much sealed that elusive first championship.

Only this is Will Power, and it never goes easy. After leading a race-high 33 laps, he spun on cold tires in traffic and ruined what could have been an easy victory. It forced him to fight for a 10th-place finish and left the door open for Castroneves to snatch the title away in Saturday night's finale in Fontana, California.

Power was surprisingly able to laugh about it Monday.

"Best drive I ever had," he said with a chuckle. "It could have been a lot worse, I guess. We maintained the points lead, and we're going to Fontana."

With a 51-point lead in the standings, the championship is technically his for the taking. But he can't take this for granted.

The finale is worth double points and Castroneves is an outstanding oval racer. In a similar position a year ago, Castroneves fought to the finish with Dixon in refusing to concede the championship.

And, Power has been in this position many times before.

He was the points leader headed into the 2010 finale, but brushed the wall, finished 25th and lost the title by five points. He lost the points lead in the penultimate race in 2011 following a pit road incident with another driver, and was then in the 15-car accident in the finale at Las Vegas that killed Dan Wheldon.

Power broke his back in the Las Vegas accident, came back in 2012 to make a charge at the championship, then bizarrely lost control of his car 55 laps into the finale and crashed. Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed the title and Power was left empty-handed for a third consecutive year.

So he stopped making the championship the top priority in his life last year, and learned to enjoy racing again. By the time he got to the finale at Fontana, he was well out of the championship race and motivated by a throwaway comment fellow driver Ed Carpenter had made a year earlier when Power had crashed away the title.

Power remembered when Carpenter said, "Will Power did exactly what everyone expected him to do at the last race last year," and used it as motivation to win at Fontana. It was a pivotal victory for Power, who felt it showed he can win on ovals and be a championship-winning driver.

Now he'll have to prove it again Saturday night, when a sixth-place finish will give him his first title regardless of what Castroneves does.

"You know everyone has their own opinion of what I'll do, and it's impossible to know what people think. All I can do is put my head down and focus," he said. "I do want it bad. It would be absolutely the biggest thing of my life, what I've worked for the last 15 years. After what happened with the earthquake, you reflect, you can't take life for granted. You know what you want."

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