Power improving on ovals, boosting title hopes
Since moving to Indy-style racing in 2005, Power gradually became comfortable with the high speeds, close proximity to walls and sustained G-forces involved in oval track racing.
He isn't scared — and that's a little scary.
"The thing that scares you is you get immune to it, right? Immune to the speed and how dangerous it actually is," Power said. "It sort of becomes normal to you. That's when you're like, 'Oh, man, it was only a year ago I was thinking this was just stupidity and I shouldn't even be doing it.'"
Today, Power isn't just surviving on ovals — he's thriving.
The Australian's big breakthrough came last weekend, when he won at Texas Motor Speedway for the first oval-track victory of his career.
Power was the IndyCar Series' best road course racer last season, and was decent enough on oval tracks to nearly win the IndyCar championship. Even marginal improvement on ovals this season could put Power over the top.
The Team Penske driver comes into Sunday's race at the Milwaukee Mile with a 21-point lead over Dario Franchitti, the driver Power lost the title to at the end of last season.
"To me, I guess, it was a matter of time," Power said of winning on an oval. "I've always been knocking on the door there, and everything came together at Texas."
Teammate Ryan Briscoe said it's a sign of Power's steady improvement.
"I think if you're a good road course driver, you'll become a good oval driver — unless you're scared of the speed," Briscoe said. "If you don't have a problem with the fear, being good on ovals comes with experience."
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said Power gradually learned how to work with his team on ovals, providing feedback to help his crew figure out what adjustments can make the car faster.
"When he first came to us, he was like, 'Hey, I don't really know. Just give me what you had last year and let me feel it,'" Cindric said.
Cindric said Power really didn't know what a car was supposed to feel like on an oval when he came to the team.
"If you've been in a bad car on an oval, it's real hard (not) to be pretty gun-shy about it," Cindric said. "He gained that confidence last year, had some good races, had some good race cars. Then he understood what it was going to take (to go) from running top-five to winning."
But fellow title contenders will be watching closely to see if Power can be as good on a challenging short oval such as Milwaukee, or Iowa next weekend, as he was at Texas.
"I never felt complete until I had won a 1-mile oval race to say, 'I won an oval race,'" Tony Kanaan said. "Because Texas, so many things can happen which are not up to our control. This is a driver's track."
Power seems well-positioned for another chance at the championship, but isn't thinking about it for now.
"We led the whole year last year and lost it in the last race," Power said.
Power still recalls a last-season slip-up at Chicagoland, when he was running among the leaders near the end of the race when he had to make an extra pit stop for fuel; his crew hadn't put enough in his tank on his previous pit stop.
"If we just hadn't made that mistake at Chicagoland we would have won the championship," Power said. "It was as simple as that. It was one stop. We just didn't get enough fuel in. It was just that right there."
It was an uncharacteristic mistake for Team Penske, widely regarded as IndyCar's answer to the New York Yankees. But Power says they've learned from it.
"The guys on my car are more experienced, too, and probably understood," Power said. "We all went through it together, so now you think, 'OK, we saw how to lose a championship. Now we know how to win one.'"
Cindric said Power spent the offseason working to get better as a driver, reviewing video of races to analyze where he might have made mistakes or come up short.
"Behind closed doors, you see the disappointment and the emotion," Cindric said. "And you see the drive in the offseason to go to the next step."