Published August 25, 2012
| Associated Press
SONOMA, Calif. – When Will Power won his third straight pole Saturday for the IndyCar race in Sonoma, he didn't just put himself in prime position to go for his third straight victory in wine country.
That single standings point awarded to the pole winner also increased his overall IndyCar lead by nearly 17 percent.
That's how close the standings are bunched heading into the final three races of an entertaining IndyCar season. Power boosted his lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay to six points with his fourth pole of the year, and only 29 points separate the top four drivers.
The race Sunday could be just as unpredictable as the standings. With three track modifications to encourage passing in a longer race, Power isn't confident he'll dominate in his quest for a third straight victory at the southern end of Northern California's wine country.
"I can see the race is going to be pretty wide open," said Power, who will start from the pole for the 28th time in his career, in his 100th IndyCar start. "The way the windows work out, extending the race by 10 laps, and there will probably be more passing, too. Expect a lot of action — hopefully not with me."
Power won the last two races in Sonoma from the pole, barely trailing at any point. The back-to-back wins were a remarkable comeback from 2009, when he broke his back on a blind corner of this road course in a crash with Nelson Philippe.
Asked how he recovered from those four broken bones in his back and a concussion to win twice in Sonoma before putting himself in prime position for the overall IndyCar title, Power cracked: "Alcohol."
"No, actually quite the opposite," Power added. "It's a recovery process you've got to go through when something like that happens. You've just got to build up your back again, must certainly build up your confidence. When you have a crash like that, you start thinking, 'Are we ever going to be as good again?' I came back, and I was actually better, so it was all good."
With Power in front of the field, IndyCar is coming back from a three-week break for a sprint to the finish down the California coast in Fontana next month. Each of the past six title chases on the circuit have gone down to the final weekend, and this one should be another nail-biter: Anybody who can stay within 107 points of the lead in Sonoma will still be in the chase heading to Baltimore next week.
Hunter-Reay, who will start seventh in Sonoma, is followed by Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon within 29 points. James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud and Tony Kanaan are all close enough to entertain legitimate championship dreams, while three-time champ Dario Franchitti is probably a bit too far back in eighth.
"This is definitely one of the most competitive IndyCar seasons I've seen in a long time, either one that I've been a part of or not," Hunter-Reay said. "This year has been extremely, extremely competitive. I think this championship is going to come down to Fontana. It's going to be fought between three or four guys at least. Realistically, I think the top five have a shot at winning."
Hunter-Reay led the title race by 20 points heading into Mid-Ohio three weeks ago, but left trailing Power by five points after finishing 24th with engine issues.
The spotlight in Sonoma is squarely on Penske Racing and Power, who was timed in 1 minute, 17.2709 seconds around the 2.31-mile, 12-turn layout in qualifying.
Power's Penske teammate, Ryan Briscoe, was second in 1:17.4347, and Sebastien Bourdais was third in 1:17.7497. Castroneves, who completed Penske's podium sweep last year in Sonoma alongside Power and Briscoe, will start fourth.
Power, Briscoe and Castroneves have combined for three wins and eight podium finishes at Sonoma.
"Most everybody in the field feels Penske has got it all figured out," Bourdais said. "They've been dominating all weekend here. I don't know what it's going to take."
The Sonoma track modifications are another variable, with the drivers working to figure out the best way to take advantage of the three changes they suggested, including a hairpin turn that creates more opportunities for passing in what had evolved into a gas-mileage race in the past few years.
The changes are getting positive reviews — but they're also puzzles to be solved.
"Indy cars are not really designed for first-gear, 30-mile-an-hour hairpins, and it makes it very easy to make a mistake," Hinchcliffe said. "I think that's actually going to create as many passing opportunities as a big brake zone is, just guys maybe getting it a bit wrong into Turn 11 and getting into a little drag race up to Turn 1."
Power had it all figured out during qualifying, but he doesn't think his acumen in Sonoma was a product of his crash. He broke his back again last October in Las Vegas in the crash that killed Dan Wheldon.
Three years after getting airlifted out of wine country, Power acknowledges a little apprehension.
"Every time I go over that bloody (Turn) 3A, I still don't think the lines are good enough there," Power said. "I mean, man, when you go over the crest (and) there's someone sitting there, you're going to hit them hard. And I did."