Will Power faces stiff test at Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Will Power is known as a man of few words but many expressions.

The laconic Australian isn't afraid to show his emotions whether he's joyfully leaping off the sidepod of his Indy car after a victory or burying his head in his hands after a crushing disappointment.

Not to mention his angry two-finger salute to IndyCar officials at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Yes, Power tells it like it is, but not always verbally. He prefers to let his driving do the talking, and in that regard, Power is among the Izod IndyCar Series' loudest voices.

In the past two years, he has emerged as the fastest driver in Indy cars, and not just on road and street courses. Power has dominated several oval races in that time but has a lone victory in one of the short Texas Twin 275s to show for his effort.

The man from Toowoomba was leading the most recent IndyCar Series race at Kentucky Speedway when an error by Ana Beatriz' crew at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing led to a pit-lane crash that left Power despondent after a 19th-place finish.

Power had arrived at Kentucky with an 11-point lead in the IndyCar championship over three-time series champion Dario Franchitti. But Franchitti's second-place finish at Kentucky turned the tables and handed the Scotsman an 18-point advantage heading into Sunday's season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ABC).

It was Power's second pit-lane incident of the season, and the damage to his psyche might have been worse than the damage to his Verizon- sponsored car. But he rallied as he met a small group of media, and his demeanor went from despondent to defiant.

"It hurts, no question about that," Power said. "I couldn't have seen anyone beating us. That was the fastest oval car I've ever had, no question. I mean, who pulls away on a mile-and-a-half? It was going to be an easy day.

"It is mind-boggling the things that have happened to me in the pits. Like today -- what are the chances of that happening?
What can you say about that? I've lost some of my best chances to win on ovals in the pits."

Power dodged an additional 10-point bullet to his championship hopes when Ed Carpenter beat Franchitti to the line for the victory in Kentucky. He believes that the 18-point deficit can be overcome.

"Things change so quickly in this sport," he affirmed. "We just need to focus on winning the race. We need to put 100 percent into winning the pole, leading the most laps, doing all those things. What's going to help us is working even harder to make sure we show up with something special at Vegas. It's not out of reach -- it's very, very possible."

If Power does his part by sweeping the maximum 53 points at Las Vegas, Franchitti still can emerge as the 2011 champion by finishing second or third.

"I couldn't care less what [Franchitti] does," Power said. "I know what my agenda is. I've got one thing -- I have to win. That's all I can do. Whatever he does, he can do what he wants. I have to win."

Look, we were ahead in the championship the last couple years and didn't win it, so maybe you've got to come from behind. If that's the case, we're right in the right spot.

-- Team owner Roger Penske

The two championship contenders have had a less-than-cordial relationship this year. Power thought Franchitti raced him dirty at St. Petersburg and Toronto and called his rival "Princess" on Twitter.

Franchitti went on to win both races; Power finished second at St.
Pete but later crashed out of the Toronto event. Franchitti has led
884 laps this season to Power's 518, but Power has six wins compared to Franchitti's four.

Dario's only DNF came at New Hampshire, whereas Power has three results of 19th or worse -- crashing at Toronto at Iowa Speedway and suffering the pit problem at Kentucky.

"I really believe that over the last year we were the quickest," Power said. "I have to say I reckon last year Dario had very good luck and we had bad luck. There's no question. This year, the luck looked like it was changing.

"The guy has been unbelievably lucky. If you look at the championships he's won, like at Homestead in 2009 ... the guy's car was slow, so he saved fuel. The other two were way off in the distance, and he got lucky with no yellows."

To bolster Power's championship effort, Penske Racing president Tim Cindric took over as Power's race strategist at midseason after serving in that role for Helio Castroneves since 2000.

"I think his overall demeanor and his approach, and really his self-confidence on the ovals, is different than it was last year," Cindric said. "I think right now it's hard to match the overall experience level of the Ganassi drivers [Franchitti and Scott Dixon] on the ovals relative to Will, but I think that he's certainly grown in that respect.

"He knows he has more to do, but right now I don't look at him any differently than our other two guys [Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe] in regard to what's possible."

"Will has obviously showed his expertise on the road courses -- there's no question about that. But he's going to have to really perform on the ovals," team owner Roger Penske said. "I think the accident he had in Iowa put him back a little bit, but you could see him starting to get the feel that he wants and the confidence.

"Look, we were ahead in the championship the last couple years and didn't win it, so maybe you've got to come from behind. If that's the case, we're right in the right spot."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.