Will Power puts misery in the rearview

August, 31, 2014
08/31/14
1:35
AM ET

FONTANA, Calif. -- This time, there were no mistakes.

There were no penalties. No crashes. No contact. No controversy.

This time, Will Power did exactly what he needed to finally claim his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship. By finishing ninth in the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, Power held off his Penske Racing teammate Helio Castroneves and put to rest the ghosts of his past championship failures.

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Will Power
AP Photo/Will LesterWill Power finished ninth Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway to claim his first IndyCar Series crown.

He wasn't the only happy man at Fontana on Saturday night, as Tony Kanaan won his first race for Target Ganassi Racing with Scott Dixon completing a 1-2 finish for Chip Ganassi's team. But the story on the night was Power taking Roger Penske's first Indy car championship since Sam Hornish Jr. won the 2006 title for "The Captain."

"It was a great year for the whole team," Power said. "I feel with the two teammates, Juan [Pablo Montoya] and Helio, they gave good feedback, and we were a very strong combination. Full credit to the team.

"That was one of the hardest races ever," he added. "I was crying over the line. It's surreal to be champion, man. I can't believe it."

Power appeared to be on edge in the run up to the season finale after an unforced error a week ago at Sonoma Raceway made the championship battle closer than it should have been.

The pressure piled on even more when Power started 21st in the 22-car field after he nearly crashed in his qualifying run.

Despite a lack of yellows (the first 175 laps were run without a caution), Power never dropped off the lead lap, and he steadily worked his way into the top 10. He then moved into the lead shortly after the only restart of the race, but an incorrect front wing adjustment during his final pit stop spoiled the handling of his car and he faded to ninth place at the flag.

By then, it didn't matter, because Castroneves, after starting from pole position, made an illegal pit entry for his own final stop, and the subsequent drive-through penalty left him 14th in the final reckoning.

It was the fourth second-place finish in the championship since 2002 for the Brazilian.

"I was pushing extremely hard because I knew the only way to get in front was in the pits," Castroneves said. "My bad, guys.

"It stings a little bit, but that's what motivates me," he added. "It's good to be upset when you finish second in a championship, which gives me another reason to come back stronger next year and fix what we can fix to win a championship."

Power won a series-best three races in 2014 and led far more laps than any other driver. But a series of unforced errors (pit lane penalties, blocking violations and spins) kept Castroneves and several other drivers in contention until the very end.

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Tony Kanaan
AP Photo/Will LesterTony Kanaan picked up his first victory of the season in Saturday night's finale in Fontana.

Given his checkered history in critical championship battles, some observers expected him to crack again Saturday, especially with his jittery prerace demeanor. Instead, Power was calm and collected as his rivals eliminated themselves over the course of 500 miles.

"I'm so mentally exhausted now, and my hands are like numb from holding the wheel so tight," Power said. "The last 14 days have been the worst in my life. Just mentally and emotionally so bad -- not sleeping and stressing. I feel bad for my wife, keeping her up at night.

"You never think it can happen until it happens. I can't believe I won, and this is just mega."

While Roger Penske is the runaway leader with 15 Indianapolis 500 victories, in recent years, Ganassi has edged closer and closer to Penske's tally of 12 series championships with all 10 of his titles scored since 1996.

Meanwhile, Hornish's 2006 crown was Penske's only championship since 1994. Until Power got the job done Saturday.

"I think tonight shows you the strength of the team, and Will did a great job," Penske said. "What a night -- you couldn't ask for anything more. We got what we wanted: the championship."

With Castroneves finishing second in the championship and Montoya fourth, it was Penske Racing's most successful season since Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy finished 1-2-3 for the team in the 1994 CART-sanctioned championship.

Ganassi ended the 2014 season strongly, with victories in three of the final four races, including Kanaan's at Auto Club Speedway.

With a new engine manufacturer and driver lineup, the entire Ganassi team started the 2014 campaign slowly, but Kanaan and Dixon were the hottest drivers in the series since July.

"It's been a long time coming," Kanaan said. "Chip gave me the opportunity, and it's Target's 25-year anniversary with the team. At the team meeting, Chip said 'If you win the last race, you get to brag about it for seven months.' It's an awesome feeling. I think it shows our potential. We turned the situation around, and the team got a grip on what we needed to do."

The 2014 IndyCar Series matched the modern-era record established in the 2000 and 2001 CART-sanctioned series with 11 race winners.

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