CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Will Power returned to Fontana last December, yearning to know why he had crashed in the IndyCar season finale. He hopped into a street car and drove around Auto Club Speedway to the exact spot that cost him the championship.
“I got out and looked at the track because when it happened, it almost felt like something broke, there was no warning there,” Power said. “But I got out. I looked at the seams. I ran around. I drove around with my engineers. I don’t know. I just crashed.”
It’s the soul-searching that wears on Power, because there are no easy answers to the hard questions.
He doesn’t know why, as IndyCar’s most dominant driver the last three seasons, he’s come up empty each time in the championship race. He doesn’t know why fluke things always seem to happen to him to derail days that should be effortless.
And he doesn’t know why everyone seems to think he’s plagued by a streak of crazy bad luck.
“The worst luck ever? I’m trying to understand why people say that about me,” Power said.
Maybe because it was on full display in the IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg 2 weeks ago when Power clearly had the most dominant car in the field – so good that rival team owner David Letterman jokingly grumbled on live television that Power needed to get off the gas a little to turn it into a real race. But in one of those bizarre moments that only seems to happen to Power, he was run over from behind under caution by JR Hildebrand, who said he was distracted by his knobs in his cockpit while getting ready for a restart.
When Hildebrand later went to apologize for ruining Power’s race, he was surprised to find Power wasn’t angry after finishing 16th.
“I don’t even get angry anymore. It happened and I’m just like, ‘Surprise, surprise, I just got run over, let’s go check the damage,’ ” Power said. “There’s just nothing you can do it about it, man. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that every road and street course, I am usually the quickest car and I qualify either on pole, first or second. So when something happens to me, it is magnified.
“Maybe I should start qualifying 16th and going a lap down? Then maybe nobody would think I have the worst luck ever.”
The good news for the Penske Racing driver is he heads to Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama this weekend as the defending race winner. Last year’s victory started a streak of three straight wins for the Australian, and it came after he had a dominant car in the season-opener only to finish seventh.
Power figures his struggles on ovals last season stemmed from the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas. He was part of the 15-car accident that killed Dan Wheldon, and Power suffered a broken vertebra in the crash.
But is he over it now?
“I understand it now. I understand it’s a mindset,” he said. “I’ve had good races on ovals, and you go back and understand how you felt mentally then, and I think that will get you back in the right direction.”
When the series shifted to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500 and kicked into the oval portion of the schedule, Power’s troubles began. He was involved in a crash with Mike Conway midway through the 500 – the first of several slips on ovals last season. He was penalized for blocking Tony Kanaan at Texas, wrecked at Iowa, and infamously lost the championship when he inexplicably wrecked in the finale when his car spun when he ran over a seam in the track at Fontana.
“I remember looking forward to doing the ovals last year, but I think what happened in Vegas the year before, I could tell everyone was on edge going into that Indy race,” Power said. “Whether that played a part, I don’t know. To me, I think when you feel tentative on an oval, I think you put yourself in a bad situation. Like with me, some of the things that happened to me, maybe it was me being a little standoffish.”
Something else that has helped Power is the inspiration from Brad Keselowski’s NASCAR championship at Penske Racing. Power watched Keselowski’s championship speech on television and immediately tweeted about how it personally affected him. He’d found the speech to be “from the heart” and a motivator for the entire organization.
“His championship was such a phenomenal performance of rallying the team and executing to get it done,” Power said. “It was just a great role model for anyone who wants to win a championship on how to do it. And Roger was so over the moon – finally getting the championship, he had won everything else and he won that championship he had worked so hard for years. I could see him more excited about racing in general. He was real upbeat and I think it’s been good for all the development. He really wants to win the IndyCar championship now, too.”
Born: March 1, 1981
Hometown: Toowoomba, Australia
Career stats: 16 wins, 22 poles in 74 IndyCar starts (2008-present). … 3 wins, 7 poles in 30 Champ Car starts (2005-07).
FYI: Finished second in points in 2010, 2011 & 2012. … Was 2006 Champ Car rookie of the year. … Was IndyCar Road Course champion in 2010 & 2011.