Published November 20, 2014
Thinking he was a lock to move on in qualifying, Will Power drove into the pits, ready to park his car for the next session. Instead of greeting him with open arms, Power's crew members were waving them, imploring him to get back out on the track.
Power did, worked his way into the top six and made the most of last-grasp opportunity, locking up his IndyCar Series-record eighth pole of 2010 in the final round of knockout qualifying at Infineon Raceway on Saturday.
"We thought that that time would sit. In fact, six guys were covered by a tenth and a half or something," Power said. "Halfway around that lap on my dash I was two-tenths down. I figured, I'm done. It's going to be tough to make that up. But I made it up, which was surprising. It was very tight."
Taking a chance by saving his fastest tires for the final six session, Power appeared to be safe late in the second qualifying round before being bumped out of the top six in the closing minutes.
Waved back onto the course by his crew, he jumped up to fifth in his final lap to get into the final round and pulled off another late-in-the-session speed run, making it around the 2.303-mile, 12-turn road course through California's wine country in 1 minute, 16.5282 seconds.
That's back-to-back poles for Power and a spot alone in the record book ahead Helio Castroneves, who had seven poles in 2007.
Best part? Power did it at Infineon Raceway, where a year ago he was being airlifted from the course after a practice session crash left him with a broken back.
The wreck ended the Aussie's season, but Team Penske stuck by him and he rewarded them by winning four races — all on road courses — while building a 41-point lead headed into the season's final five races.
Power has already locked up the inaugural IndyCar road course championship, took down the poles record and earned a spot on the front row for Sunday's 75-lap race on a course that predictably gave him a bit of the heebie-jeebies when he first arrived here this week.
"Within an hour of lying in hospital, Roger (Penske) told me, 'Don't worry about it. Even if it's not full-time next year, we'll give you something, maybe selected races again,'" Power said. "That's the organization that it is. It gives you a lot of confidence as a driver. As I've come through during my career, all these different teams, I've never had this feeling of comfort within a team and loyalty."
Castroneves had the fastest qualifying time through most of the final session only to get edged by Power in the final 90 seconds. That's OK with the three-time Indy 500 winner, though. Up front is the place to be at Sonoma, where tight turns, elevation changes and small passing windows make it tough to work through the field.
"This place is always good to be in the front," said Castroneves, who finished 0.04 seconds behind Power. "Certainly, it's difficult to pass. We have straightaways, but it's not quite straight. That's why it's so difficult."
Defending Sonoma champion Dario Franchitti had a solid qualifying day, easily making it through the first two rounds before finishing third. He made up ground in the points race with a win at Mid-Ohio two weeks and could use a good finish at Sonoma to set up the final four races on ovals, where he figures to have an advantage over Power.
"All we can do is focus on doing our best and trying to win the next five races," said Franchitti, the flag-to-flag winner at Sonoma a year ago. "If we can't win it, we got to finish second and concentrate on our car, what we're doing, not really worry too much about what Will is doing."
And what about Alex Tagliani?
Surprisingly, the Canadian had never raced at Sonoma in a decade of IndyCar and CART, his only experience on the demanding course a 10-lap, grind-the-tires-down stint in a rental car earlier in the week.
Tagliani liked the way the rental handled the hills and corners and was even more impressed with the fast IndyCar his team put together, using it to qualify fourth. He'll start on the second row next to Franchitti, hoping to build on the fourth he had at Mid-Ohio that felt like a mini breakthrough in a mostly stagnant first season with the FAZZT Race Team.
"When you have a good car, it's a fun track," Tagliani said. "I would hate to drive this track with a bad car."