Not long ago, Will Power would have struggled to accept losing a Verizon IndyCar Series championship in the season’s final race.
Where the fiercely competitive Team Penske driver would have been consumed by the disappointment of finishing second — as he did to teammate Simon Pagenaud this season — Power’s experience as a continual contender serves as a reminder to remember his accomplishments.
That’s how he was able to graciously handle losing the 2016 title to Pagenaud in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 18. Power and Pagenaud embraced twice and shared a laugh before the victory celebration.
It marked the fourth time since 2010 that Power finished runner-up to the season champion. As Power walked away from a confetti shower and champagne-spraying party for Pagenaud that he had hoped would be for him, he said, “How many seconds? Four seconds? I tell you, though, I’ve never finished out of the top four in the championship since I joined this team.”
However uncomfortable the moment, he still accentuated the positive. The old Power wouldn’t have done that. An older and wiser 35-year-old Power doesn’t need to be reminded of his place in the series. He joined Roger Penske’s powerhouse operation on a part-time basis in 2009, earning a full-time ride the following season. Since then, the Australian placed second in the championship three consecutive years, fourth, won the 2014 series title, then ended up third and second again.
His 29 career wins are tied with teammate Helio Castroneves and Team Penske driver coach Rick Mears for 11th on the all-time list. Competitors concur that, to win a championship, one must overcome Power.
“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever had to race,” said Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion.
Pagenaud said of Power, “I’ve always thought he was the benchmark of speed in the (Verizon) IndyCar Series.”
James Hinchcliffe of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has seen a different Power since the 2014 championship.
“He’s had a whole new confidence, more of a level head. Not to say he wasn’t level-headed before, but you could always see that kind of weight on him,” Hinchcliffe said. “He was a guy who was winning six races in a year and not winning a title. As a driver, I can understand that. I get that, that it would be something that weighs on you. That championship made him drive a little more long-term.
“Right from the start of this season, he thinks long-term,” Hinchcliffe added. “He missed the first race (with an inner-ear infection), but he didn’t care. He was thinking long-term. You look at his race at Pocono, to me that was one of the best drives I’ve ever seen Will Power do. It was slow, it was steady, he let a 500-mile race come to him and that’s how you have to win those things.
“To see that evolution, especially on ovals, he’s going to be another Scott Dixon, he’s going to be a championship contender year in and year out for as long as he’s in this series.”
Power was proud of winning the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 22, although conceding it wasn’t “the right 500,” in reference to May’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. That iconic race has eluded him. He didn’t hide his disappointment after finishing second in the 2015 Indy 500 and still considers Indianapolis his most important goal on the career to-do list.
Power described 2016 as a “calm year” compared to how aggressively he took chances in years past. He chatted with retired four-time series champion Dario Franchitti at Sonoma about how confidence translates to consistency.
“It just comes with experience,” Power said. “Dario was so good at that when I was racing him. I was so quick and winning a lot of races, but he seemed to win the championship. He was just very experienced and good at that.”
Mears, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion, always talks about how success comes from putting a car in position to win at the end through patience and in-race adjustments. The same can be said for a driver trying to win a championship, where consistency and not taking reckless chances are rewarded.
“He’s always there,” Team Penske president Tim Cindric said of Power. “He misses the first race and he’s still there. I can’t say enough about him.”
Despite sitting out the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after winning the pole position in qualifying, Power was the only driver who could overtake Pagenaud for the championship in the season finale at Sonoma. Power was running second to Pagenaud in the race when a gearbox issue dropped him laps back and he finished in 20th place.
Even if he didn’t encounter the gearbox issue, Power felt Pagenaud was just too strong that day. But Power made the series finale a showdown between just those two because he had an amazing six-race stretch of four victories and two seconds.
“It was such a great middle part of the season,” Power said.
Another driver who appreciates Power is Castroneves, who has won three Indianapolis 500s but not a series title. Like Power, he’s also a four-time points runner-up.
“What a comeback this year, to not start the first race and then come back and battle for the championship,” Castroneves said. “It shows how incredible he is.”
At the end of another eventful year, a seasoned Power could still acknowledge what he did as opposed to dwelling on what he did not.
“It was a great season for me,” he said. “It really was.”