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Job secure, Power eyeing Indy 500 breakthrough

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A year ago, Will Power came to the Indy 500 hoping to simply finish.

His mental checklist before the race went something like this: Don't take any unnecessary chances; keep the car intact; don't give Roger Penske a reason to look elsewhere for a third driver.

Check. Check. Check.

Power finished fifth, heady territory for a driver more comfortable on road courses than the treacherous turns at the Brickyard.

It was good enough to eventually help the one-time substitute driver earn a full-time gig with Penske. Yet the affable Australian admits his attitude last May was decidedly guarded. He didn't race so much as he learned how to race at the demanding 2.5-mile oval.

"There was a bit of pressure (on myself) just to finish," he said. "It wasn't like focusing on the win because ... being consistent gave me a better chance of running some more races."

For a driver facing unemployment, that's not a bad strategy. His goal was to land a job, not chug milk in Victory Lane.

That won't be good enough this year. Not by a long shot.

Power comes to Indy atop the points standings after wins on road courses in Brazil and St. Petersburg. Yet he's no longer a road course specialist. He finished a respectable 12th in Kansas four weeks ago in his first oval start since last August, then made a statement on Pole Day.

Though Helio Castroneves stole the show, Power will be right over his teammate's right shoulder when the green flag drops on Sunday. He'll start from the middle of row 1 after being the only driver besides Castroneves to top 227 mph in qualifying.

Unlike last year, Castroneves knows his teammate won't be content to simply tick off laps as part of one of the world's most harrowing job interviews.

"Last year everybody was holding him back," said Castroneves, who is seeking his fourth Indy crown. "He did a great job finishing fifth."

Power's sights are set considerably higher this time around.

"I'm leading the points, but this is the Indy 500. So considering the history of this team, you feel the pressure to really perform, but that's the pressure I put on myself," he said. "I love winning."

It's why he was so adamant at trying to stick with Penske. He spent the 2008 season driving for KV Racing Technology and finished 12th in the standings. It was solid, but the ChampCar refugee wanted more.

When Penske offered him the chance to sub in for Castroneves, who was fighting federal tax-evasion charges, Power leapt at the opportunity hoping it would lead to more.

His Indy performance helped him get starts at Toronto, Edmonton (where he won) and Kentucky.

Power appeared to be on his way. Rick Mears became a mentor. His teammates embraced him. Everything appeared to be working out.

In a flash, things changed.

He was zipping through a practice session crash at Sonoma in late-August when he crashed. He was airlifted to the hospital, his back broken, his confidence shattered. In the hospital Power wondered if his chances of catching on at Penske were gone.

Penske assured Power he would have a chance to drive in 2010, but couldn't guarantee that it would be full time.

"They weren't just going to dump me because I had an accident," he said. "But I was anxious because I wanted a full-time ride, I wanted to go for the championship and be in a car every weekend."

Penske found the sponsorship to put Power in the No. 12 Honda for the entire 2010 season. That turned out to be the easy part.

For Power, the more difficult part came when he slipped into the cockpit. Although Mears said "the accident didn't change him one way or the other," the perfectionist in Power wondered whether he'd lost his mojo.

It wasn't enough to simply come back from the crash. He needed to be able to run up front. He wasn't sure he was up for it.

"The question was whether I could compete at the same level and have the same confidence," he said.

Even as his rehab progressed, even as he capped his remarkable turnaround with a win in the season-opening event in Brazil, the questions persisted.

He won two weeks later in St. Petersburg, still the butterflies remained. It wasn't until he took the pole at Long Beach in mid-April that Power finally relaxed.

"It was like 'OK, I've got it back, I'm good, I'm good,'" Power said.

At times, he's been even better than that.

Indy, however, can humble the best. The track's unique demands put a premium on precision. Sunday will only be Power's third start here and just his 13th start on an oval in the past three years. Compared to Castroneves, Power remains a novice when it comes to oval racing, and he knows it. That experience was the difference on Pole Day.

"He just knows the track so well and has experience and seat time, there's no substitute for that," Power said.

Maybe, but Power believes he's catching up. So does Mears.

"He came in here with more confidence and the confidence comes from experience and laps," Mears said. "He's still in that process."

And the process is working. The white knuckles Power gripped the steering wheel with when he made his debut at Indy two years are gone. Things are slowing down. He is speeding up.

"I'm in a better position to win the race, so you feel a little more (at ease)," he said. "You think about a lot. I want to have a really good day on Sunday."