SONOMA — Just two races stand between Will Power and his first IndyCar series championship. After a big victory in last week’s race, he starts on the pole Sunday on a track he has utterly dominated for the past four years.
Power has been disappointed too many times to get excited about his chances, however. He isn’t thinking beyond the twisting, treacherous Sonoma Raceway — but he’s always thinking about Helio Castroneves, the teammate and friendly rival trying to chase him down.
“There’s still a lot of points on the table and a lot of racing to come,” Power said after setting the track speed record while winning the pole Saturday. “You’ve just got to focus on the job at hand and get the most out of every situation.”
Power and Castroneves have put Team Penske in position for an overdue celebration as the circuit wraps up with events on both ends of California. Power takes a 40-point lead over Castroneves into Sonoma, with both drivers tantalizingly close to their first series titles.
“At this point, there’s not much to lose,” Castroneves said. “Hopefully we’re going to have a great race. I feel the car is fast, and we’re going to try to do everything we can. I don’t know the strategy, even if we have to take some chances, which we should do. At this moment, not much (reason) to be conservative.”
Tim Cindric is well aware Team Penske hasn’t won the IndyCar championship since 2006, a surprisingly long drought for an elite team. Even though Cindric calls Power’s races, the Penske Racing president won’t anoint a favorite among Power, Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, who’s still lurking in fifth.
After a Penske driver finished second in five of the past six years, they’ll all race to win in wine country, no matter the standings.
“The rules don’t really change internally as far as team orders, because team orders have always been, ‘Just don’t hit each other,’” Cindric said.
“Even though Roger runs Helio’s car and I run Will’s car, we know that the first priority is to give our team the best chance to win the championship,” Cindric added. “Both of us will be very content with either one of the guys winning the championship.”
It definitely matters to Power and Castroneves, who have both traversed rocky paths to the brink of a title.
After a serious crash in 2009, Power has three victories and a second-place finish over the past four years at Sonoma, seamlessly navigating the difficult track and the notorious wind gusts on the north end of San Francisco Bay.
Power surged into the overall points lead earlier this month and cemented his spot with an impressive win at Milwaukee last week. He also won last year at Fontana, where the season concludes with a double-points race next Saturday.
But the Australian has been in this position before.
He led the overall points standings in 2010 and 2012 with two races to go, only to crash in the finale while losing the title both times. In fact, only three drivers in the past eight seasons have held onto their points lead with two races left to win the IndyCar championship.
Castroneves faces his own obstacles, however: With nine top-four series finishes in his career, the Brazilian still hasn’t claimed an overall title. His final qualifying run was a disappointment, stranding him in sixth place for Sunday’s start.
A Penske driver has finished second in five of the past six years.
“Nothing in the past few years has gone as it should at the end of the year — for us, anyway, and for all kinds of different reasons,” Cindric said. “It’s hard to think that this year would be any different, but you just go through things that you know, and you let fate decide a few of the others.”
Another big finish would put Power on the brink of his first championship, but Castroneves is unlikely to be out of the hunt with double points looming in Southern California.
Six drivers headed to Sonoma still in contention for the title, although some would need Power to crash twice to have a real shot. Simon Pagenaud, who is third, hurt his chances with a 15th-place finish in qualifying Saturday.
But the doubled points for IndyCar’s 500-mile events have kept the championship race more competitive, and that’s why Team Penske isn’t celebrating just yet.
“It’s probably something that the fans enjoy, seeing it come down to the last race,” Cindric said. “For the teams, it’s difficult because you put so much into it all year long. For it to come down to the last race makes it difficult.”