ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Will Power left a late dinner and headed out on foot through the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, where nearly every stranger he passed congratulated him on his win.
It was the same way at the restaurant, as diner after diner stopped by his table. Even the manager, who moved things around on a crowded Sunday night to accommodate the winner of the season-opening IndyCar Series race.
Power was a bit embarrassed. But attention is the price of winning, and Power had not done much of that over the last 23 months.
After opening the 2012 season with three consecutive wins, Power fell into an unusual slump. He didn’t win again that season, but used consistency to remain in the title hunt, only to cough away his chance at the title by crashing early in the finale.
It was a heartbreaking defeat for Power, who lost the championship in the final race of the season for the third consecutive year.
Losing is the lowest form of misery for the hyper-focused Australian. His fitness and diet regime are obsessive, his quirks can be considered eccentric and Power has been accused more than once of being consumed by racing and what it takes to be a champion.
Yet as he slumped through most of 2013 — he was winless the first 14 races and the one-year anniversary of his last victory came and went — Power found that he’d never been happier. He learned to accept defeat.
It required him learning how to let it go, to stop obsessing over the smallest of details, and to go into every race weekend determined to have some fun and not stress about the championship.
“I’ve just got to keep reminding myself, ‘It doesn’t matter if you lose,’” Power said after Sunday’s win. “You’ve just got to keep reminding yourself that it’s a race, and you race hard to win a race. I just race now, race hard. That’s the only way to think of it, not think of points.
“I want to win a championship, but I like winning races. Hopefully the two come together and it happens.”
It finally came together for Power in the 15th race last season at Sonoma, where he picked up his first win of the year. He won at Houston, and again in the season finale at Fontana, the same place he’d crashed away the championship a year before.
Power finished fourth in the final standings, his worst result since he became a full-time driver for Team Penske in 2010. But he won three of the final five races, and that was good enough for him.
“I hate attention. I just loved last year. No one paid attention. I could just do my thing,” he said. “I hope it continues. I don’t want people to talk about me. I like to be low key. I don’t like to be in the limelight.”
And he wasn’t during the offseason or the buildup to the St. Pete opener.
The attention was instead on new teammate Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to IndyCar after more than a decade away, or Tony Kanaan’s move to replace Dario Franchitti at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. There was talk about Scott Dixon’s bid to defend his series title, Sebastien Bourdais’ quick pace in offseason testing and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s attempt to return to his championship form.
Nothing about Power.
That changed Sunday, when he led a race-high 74 of 110 laps and cruised to the win. That makes four of the last six, dating back to last season’s strong close, and now one can’t help but wonder if Power will again be in the mix to win everything this year.
“Will is quick no matter what. If he gets out in front, it’s going to be hard to take it away from him,” said Hunter-Reay, who beat Power for the title in 2012. “He’s going to be in the hunt for the championship no matter what, unless he has some crazy bad luck. Will definitely hasn’t skipped a beat. He’ll be a definite pain in the rear end this year.”
So whether he likes it or not, the attention is on Power. And no matter how hard he tries, he still can’t shake his compulsive urge to win every time he gets in the car.
But he can manage it a whole lot better.
“Can you have fun not winning? Do I have fun? No,” he admitted. “You know what? You come here to win. Good, hard racing is fun. You start at the back of the grid, you finish up third, that’s fun. There’s nothing worse than just struggling, though, not having the car or equipment to do well. That gives you a good hit — your self-confidence, you start to question yourself.
“I just remind myself that everyone is human, you’re capable of doing everything everyone else is if you work hard.”