Mar 26, 2014, 10:12 AM EDT
There are few things in the Verizon IndyCar Series more scintillating to watch than Will Power on a qualifying lap.
For four full years, and an additional handful of starts in 2009 before that, Power has racked up 27 career pole positions while driving the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske entry.
Of course there is more to the 33-year-old Australian besides his qualifying pace. He’s one of the series’ best racers, and has quickly morphed into one of the best sound bites with his dry humor often a highlight of any media availability (or describing Christmas in his native Toowoomba, Australia).
Yet ultimately, while Power has long been IndyCar’s fastest driver, he’s still yet to be its finest.
Three successive runner-up finishes in the championship from 2010 through 2012 left Power to ponder the missed opportunities over the long, excruciating offseason.
Then 2013 happened, where Power found himself out of title contention by July, and could afford to take more chances and just do his thing without extra pressure.
What followed was a tour de force in the final five races of the year, with three wins and a potential fourth at Baltimore that went begging after contact with sparring partner Scott Dixon after a restart.
It’s not lost on Power that that different mentality was a welcome change of pace, and should have him ready to continue that assault into 2014.
“Yeah, I have to say I was a lot more relaxed in racing situations,” Power said during IndyCar media day in Orlando. “I had spent three years being very conservative, feeling the points. Actually taught me you just need to race hard no matter what. At the end of the year, it was fun. You can just race hard, it does not matter. In fact, the results came a lot better when I did that.”
Entering 2014, Power has whatever momentum he gained from the finish of 2013 to take into the new year. He dominated preseason testing at Barber, again. And he’ll of course start as favorite for qualifying in St. Petersburg – he’s scored four straight poles there the last four years.
While he’s started up front, he’s only once been able to convert that into a win, back in 2010. Last year he had his race compromised in one of the year’s most bizarre incidents, when Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand crashed into him under a yellow flag.
To hear Power tell it, he should have never fallen back into that position to begin with.
“I think if I raced harder at St. Petersburg, Helio would have never had gotten me around the outside, and (JR) would have never ran over me,” he said.
But overall, Power looks back at 2013 and admits the race craft was something he was able to improve.
“It taught me a lot about racing, getting in the pack,” he said. “When you spend a lot of time at the front, the restarts, you’re not in the pack. I feel that my race craft was really good by the end and I enjoyed it.”
As it was, Power was the year’s top qualifier anyway with a 4.3 average, and a series-leading seven appearances in nine Firestone Fast Six sessions.
The work being done by Power and his Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and new recruit Juan Pablo Montoya this offseason has been done in Sebring, Sonoma, Fontana and Barber. As Montoya gets re-acclimated back to open-wheel racing, Power has led the team’s development charge this winter.
“We’ve had a couple test days with the three cars. Actually found some pretty good stuff,” Power said. “I feel as though we’re going to be pretty competitive. Kind of just working hard, not leaving anything on the table, not leaving anything to chance. You just can’t be lazy. You’ve got to work hard in this game if you want to continually be competitive. So that’s our plan.”
Power can always be considered a championship favorite going into the year, but the strength of depth within IndyCar provides no guarantees.
At one point in 2013, he was as low as 17th in the points standings. He rebounded to fourth by the end of the year on the strength of his torrid finish.
“It just taught me not to think about points, but to just race hard and enjoy it,” Power said. “A lot of teams now are really compressed. There’s no one that sticks out. Obviously Ganassi was strong on the road and street courses last year. Every off-season, all these small teams, including us, you close the gap. The gap gets smaller and smaller.
“It’s a different series or different intensity of competition, you could say, to what it was two or three years ago,” he added. “It’s really ramped up. No one just takes all the poles. It’s quite difficult to get a pole, let alone get in the Fast Six now, which is great. It’s a good, tough series.”
And in this good, tough series, it would only be a surprise if Power isn’t racking up more poles, winning races and contending once again for his first title.