Aug 25, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
The two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California is a place of both heartbreak and triumph for Team Penske driver Will Power.
Power entered the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale at ACS as the championship leader and was looking to finally capture the series title after near-misses in 2010 and 2011.
But Power ran over a seam in the track and crashed on Lap 55. His crew was able to make repairs and have him get on the track to run 11 more laps, but that didn’t stop Ryan Hunter-Reay from claiming the championship with a fourth-place finish.
One year later, Power returned to Fontana but not as a title threat. Still, he was on a late-season tear with wins on the road course at Sonoma and the streets of Houston.
But those victories paled in comparison when Power was able to hold off Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan on a late restart to take the checkered flag at ACS.
Even if you had the race on mute in your living room, the look of jubilation on Power’s face in Victory Lane was enough to tell how much that one meant to him.
“It’s the most satisfying win of my life,” the normally laid-back Power declared. “That is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done, and I wanted to do it so badly all year.”
The more you look back on it, the more you believe that night was a career-changer for him.
Long known as perhaps the most dominant road/street course racer in IndyCar, Power’s reputation on the ovals was nowhere near as pristine at the time. But at the place where he suffered perhaps the cruelest of his three championship defeats, he was able to dust two of the series’ best oval aces.
And you can’t help but think that moment has led us to where we are now.
With another season finale at ACS coming up this Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra), Power leads this year’s championship by 51 points over teammate Helio Castroneves after having claimed three wins, seven podiums, and an average finish of 6.3 in the season’s first 17 races.
The matter is far from settled, of course. Double points will be in play for this 500-mile finale, giving Castroneves – who, like Power, is also chasing his first series title – an opportunity.
And, of course, we’ve seen Power falter in this situation before.
In 2010, Power was up 12 points on Dario Franchitti going into the season finale at Homestead, only to make contact with the wall that was severe enough to put him out of the race after 143 laps. Franchitti finished eighth and won the title by five points.
Power and Franchitti were again mixing it up for the title in 2011, but in the next-to-last race of the year at Kentucky, pit road contact with Ana Beatriz helped relegate Power to an 19th-place finish.
Franchitti finished second, took the points lead from Power, and ultimately won the title when the finale at Las Vegas was cancelled after the massive early crash that took Dan Wheldon’s life.
Then came Fontana 2012, and Power’s third title disaster.
If you need to actually see Power hang on and win the 2014 crown this Saturday night in order to believe he’s a champion, you can’t necessarily be blamed.
But this fourth attempt by the Australian sure feels like the one that’s going to finally end in success.
A big part of that belief, at least from my perspective, comes from the leap in confidence he’s clearly taken since winning at Fontana last year.
No doubt that confidence helped him in recovering from his mid-race spin yesterday at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
Power had been dominating the race up to that point, but despite dropping all the way to 20th after the spin, he managed to push himself up to a 10th-place finish (ninth on the track; he lost one spot for passing Justin Wilson under a local yellow at the very end).
Instead of having Castroneves cut into his points lead, Power was able to increase it. Said advantage could have been much bigger had he not had his spin, but every championship season needs at least one of those kinds of drives Power put on.
Power could have crumbled after his mistake. Instead, he was unflappable.
And if he can keep a cool head again over 500 miles on Saturday night, he’ll finally be The Man in perhaps the most competitive racing series in the world.
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