INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Will Power lost three consecutive championships before he decided a change was in order.
He knew he must improve on oval tracks to be considered among the best in racing.
If there was any doubt how serious Power was about his turnaround, he settled it Sunday by winning on the biggest oval of them all.
Power won the Indianapolis 500 to check off one of the few empty boxes on his resume. When he stopped hating ovals, he won the 2014 IndyCar championship. When he started to appreciate Indianapolis Motor Speedway and made it a priority, he finally figured out how to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“You work hard at something, it comes to you. It eventually comes to you, and (Indy) was the last box to tick to be considered as a very successful driver,” Power said.
Power gave team owner Roger Penske a 17th Indy 500 victory in a sweep of the “month of May” at Indianapolis. Power also won on the road course — he’s considered a specialist on road and street courses — two weeks ago and Sunday’s win was his 34th, tying him with Al Unser Jr. for eighth on IndyCar’s all-time list.
Power also became the winningest IndyCar driver in Penske history (31). He is the first Australian victor in 102 editions of the race and was able celebrate only a few hours after countryman Daniel Ricciardo won Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix, an extraordinary showing for drivers from Down Under on the biggest day of the year in motorsports.
Power is an emotional and expressive driver, and he’s most known for getting caught on television flashing both his middle fingers at IndyCar race control. The moment made him an internet sensation. The Indy 500 victory he hopes makes him an international star.
“To be the first Australian to win the Indy 500, that’s very special,” he said. “Maybe they might recognize me down there now. I don’t think many people know who I am down there.”
He’s an Indy 500 champion.
And his winner’s circle celebration is one that won’t soon be forgotten because the wide-eyed Power could not stop screaming.
He screamed to wife, Liz, took a sip of the traditional milk, then dumped the rest over his head and around his crew. Liz Power reached for the empty milk bottle, then pointed out to her husband that he’d sprayed milk all over Indianapolis festival princess Natalie Murdock. He apologized, then started screaming again.
“I felt so bad. When I turned around, (her) glasses, she was covered in milk. I didn’t realize she was behind me,” Power said. “I said ‘I’m so sorry.’ What could I do? I didn’t see (her) behind me.”
It was his only wrong move of the race.
As Power held off pole winner Ed Carpenter, the 81-year-old Penske pumped his fist in the air and clapped. Penske was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this month, but the Power victory kept him in Indianapolis and he was unable to travel to North Carolina to watch his three NASCAR drivers race in the Coca-Cola 600.
“To be able to race on Memorial Day in the biggest sporting event in the world, have America the way it is, that’s what I’m going to take away from this race,” Penske said. “I’m just so thrilled, 17 wins. Now I have to worry about 18. I’m not going to look back, I’ll look forward. We have to be back next year.”
This year’s race was a strange one in that no clear favorite ever emerged and a new Indy car that has less downforce made it difficult to predict a winner. Penske’s four Chrevolets were fast and so was Danica Patrick in the final race of her career. That was all that was known headed into Sunday.
Come race day, it was 91 degrees, just short of the Indy 500 race-day record of 92 set in 1937. The conditions created a slick, 2 ½-mile track, and new cars proved to be a handful for even the most experienced of drivers. Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais and Patrick were among those who crashed in single-car spins. Defending race winner Takuma Sato was also knocked out when he ran into the back of a slower car.
Power led 59 laps but his final pit stop dropped him to fourth, behind three cars that were trying to win on fuel mileage. Kanaan’s crash with 12 laps remaining set up a final restart with Oriol Servia out front. Servia didn’t get a great restart and was passed by Stefan Wilson and Jack Harvey. But all three were gambling they had enough gas to get to the finish line, and it was Power who was frantically chasing them down.
Wilson and Harvey both ducked onto pit lane for gas, giving Power the lead with four laps remaining. He knew he had it won when he took the white flag all alone, and spent the final lap yelling to himself in joy as he drove away from the field.
“I’ve won so many races and poles, led more laps than anyone. I just hadn’t done it here,” he said. “I’ve be thinking, ‘Am I going to finish my career without a 500 win?’ I would race ovals every week now because I’m just so experienced at it, I really enjoy it, have become quite good at it. I feel like every time I go to an oval, I have a chance to win.
“That definitely wasn’t the feeling at the beginning of my career. I would always think, ‘Oh, it’s going to suck.’ I never thought I could win. Now I know every oval I go to, like a road course, I have a great shot at winning. That’s the attitude you have to have.”
Carpenter was second in another Chevy and noted just how much Power used to hate the speedway.
“I remember listening to him complain on the scanner, and I didn’t really like him much in 2008 because he hated this place,” said Carpenter, who grew up nearby. “Will and I became friends somehow. You can ask him now, like his favorite part of the schedule are the ovals. It’s bizarre, but we kind of bonded since I’m an oval guy now. He likes to think of himself as an oval guy. He definitely has one up on me now.”
Scott Dixon stretched his fuel to finish third and was followed by Alexander Rossi, who drove from 32nd to fourth and made some of the most spectacular moves in the race.