Sep 4, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
In a Verizon IndyCar Series paddock that features some great personalities – even if they’re more reserved and mild-mannered on camera than they are once you get to know them as the circus travels cross-country week-to-week – Will Power stands out as much for his quirks as his on-track prowess.
Until Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway though, misperceptions of Power included being known more as “the double bird guy,” “that guy with the funny name” and “the non-oval driver.”
But there was a serious word that Power needed to shake from the arsenal, or the narrative, and it wasn’t going to leave until he finally bagged that elusive first championship: choking.
That overlooks another, less discussed word that has actually been a greater hallmark and tendency throughout his racing career: resiliency.
Power was a then-unheralded driver from the World Series by Renault ranks when he made his first Champ Car start in a third Aussie Vineyards-backed entry for Derrick Walker at his home race, Surfers’ Paradise in 2005.
As he grew throughout 2006 and 2007, and won his first two races in the latter season, Power lost his ride as the Champ Car-IndyCar merger occurred. The sponsor shifted to KV Racing and when Walker’s team didn’t make it into IndyCar, Power moved over to KV.
He stood at another crossroads in 2009 when the sponsor departed altogether, but found a new chance with Team Penske first as a fill-in for Helio Castroneves and then in a part-time third car. Power maximized his opportunity with a pole and podium at Long Beach, his first race with Verizon Wireless on the car, then fifth at the Indianapolis 500 and a win in Edmonton.
He hit another setback. He suffered two fractured vertebrae and a concussion in a practice accident at Sonoma, but Power wasn’t knocked down. He was rewarded with a third full-time entry to Team Penske in 2010, fully backed by Verizon, and with an opportunity to ascend within the Penske hierarchy.
Yes, he missed out on championships in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012, all in dramatic and fairly unfortunate circumstances.
Still, it spoke volumes of how fast and talented he was that he’d consistently put himself in position to win the title in the first place. He just needed to become a bit more well-rounded. Sooner or later, the breaks had to go his way.
“Yeah, I think the fact that I wasn’t in the championship chase made me realize how aggressive I truly could be,” Power said Saturday night, when reflecting on last year.
“And I got back to how I raced when I was young which is attack, not be conservative. I think the three championships we lost was me kind of on being conservative in certain situations.
“And now I just feel like I’ve raced naturally. And it was a change, just because I was put in the position not to protect the points lead.”
He’s raced naturally in 2014, but again, he’s been resilient throughout the year.
This was a point illustrated by NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell in Saturday night’s pre-race show. In-season, Power made several mistakes, and accrued several penalties, but managed to turn something out of all of them.
At Barber, he went off course on a damp track early and lost the lead. He still ended fifth. He hit pit equipment at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and was eighth. He sped in the pits in the Indianapolis 500… and again was eighth.
Despite his first lap contact with several cars in Detroit race two, he was still second. There was another pit road speeding penalty at Texas, and again, a rebound to second.
The Pocono block netted his worst finish in this run of 10th. Toronto race one, he spun in the rain, but due to fortuitous circumstances of the race date changing and his crew’s rebuild, he still ended ninth. Even at Sonoma, he recovered from his spin to 10th.
In no instant did the crazy-eyed Aussie lose it on track to where he took himself out of the race. He finished in the top-10 despite every one of those setbacks; on the whole, he only failed to complete one lap this season. That consistency spoke volumes about how well-rounded he’d become as a whole this year.
And of course, the last three weeks of the year encapsulated Will Power’s career in a nutshell.
But this time, finally, there was resilience rather than defeat in the season finale.
“Yeah, it hasn’t sunk in that I’ve actually finally won the championship. I got a lot of questions before the race. And I just try to keep everything else out,” he said in the Fontana press conference.
“It was kind of weird. Didn’t even think about the process of the race or anything. Just was two weeks of not much sleep and stress and all that sort of stuff. Keeping my wife up at night. And just when I got in that race car just kept my mind on the job, focused and this is the result.”
The win allowed the other thing Power’s known for – his quirks – to shine through during an epic, off-the-wall, completely scatterbrained and simply perfect championship speech during the IndyCar championship celebration Sunday night.
Let’s face it. If anyone other than Power had lost his place in the speech, joking about Verizon, asking the teleprompter guy to scroll up or down, or forget his wife, Liz, you’d think they were a nutcase who shouldn’t be up there in the first place.
But because it was Will, it was so fitting, and just the right tone to cap off the 2014 season.
One where Power’s resiliency ended the choking narrative, on the way to his first series championship.
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