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IndyCar Drivers’ View: Power’s poignant victory amid Penske’s podium sweep

Written by Archie O’Reilly

The 2024 Grand Prix of Road America saw only the 14th podium sweep in IndyCar Series history as Team Penske locked out the rostrum. And they now have 10 of these sweeps, most recently at Sonoma Raceway in 2017, when Simon Pagenaud won from Josef Newgarden and Will Power.

On the top step this time was Power, who led home Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin to take the lead of the championship. It was a first success in two years and four days for Power, who has equalled Michael Andretti in fourth for all-time wins with 42 victories. 

“That was the next one I wanted to get,” Power said. “That was the one I’d been wanting for a while. To surpass Michael… big fan of Michael’s as a kid, watched him win a lot of races. The Andretti family - such a big deal, such legends of this sport. Anytime your name is around those guys, it’s a big deal. Cool to be equal with Michael.”

It has been a time of setbacks and near-misses for the driver of the No.12 Chevy since winning his second championship in 2022. And after going winless for the first time in 16 years last season amid a year of toil off-track in 2023, it was a heartwarming return to victory lane for Power amid more Penske prowess…

The most poignant of wins

Power’s world almost came crashing down early in 2023 when wife Liz suffered a life-threatening illness. She required emergency surgery for a staph infection in her spinal column after a flu-like condition continued to worsen into a severe state. 

It made Power question whether he should continue racing and led to his focus understandably being elsewhere throughout the 2023 season.

“In the off-season [after the 2022 season] when my wife is sitting in hospital, we’re just wondering what’s going to happen here,” Power said. “She almost died. You start thinking: ‘I’m going to have to stop now, take care of my son.’ Then after that it’s a long process. 

“Once they put the metal plates, you have that infection in the blood, it can stick to the metal, come back. It’s like: ‘What’s going to happen?’ Continual blood tests… you’ve just got to be on top of it. If it comes, you have to be very quick to have the antibiotics reduce it. The doc said it can come back anytime. You’ve got to be quick to catch it.”

Power’s thoughts were far beyond the prospect of never winning an IndyCar race again - that was scarcely a consideration. Family, and putting Liz and his son Beau at the forefront of his thoughts, was most important.

“When that was going on, you start thinking: ‘Should I be racing at all?’” Power said. “If something happens to Liz and something happens to me, is she going to get better? What’s going to happen? That was the thing that was planted in my mind last year. 

“You certainly don’t perform at your highest level because you don’t want your son to have no parents. That is sort of the thing you’re thinking. [It was] tough wrestling with that. Ultimately, if she wasn't getting better, I would stop. I would have to stop for my son.”

Liz came through the surgery prior to the 2023 season and Power felt able to drive. But there were more scares along the way and Power had to live with the constant fear of deterioration, including ahead of Road America last year.

“It was a very stressful weekend because I left thinking that Liz was sick again,” Power said. “She was looking in a glass, actually getting in the car. [We] had booked a private plane because that’s the only way she could travel… Get in the car, she looks down and says: ‘Look at all the worms in that cup.’ 

“I’m like: ‘Oh, s**t.’ 

“I said [to my mother-in-law]: ‘You have to stay here. We already booked this plane, taking off now. I’ll go, call you on the plane.’ All weekend she’s going back and forth to the doctors. Turns out she mixed some medications. Hallucinations… that’s how it all started. Stressful, this predicament. Should I race or not?”

Tensions ran high for Power that weekend. He suffered a heavy practice crash with Scott Dixon after the Chip Ganassi Racing driver did not realise Power was on a fast lap, causing him to push and shove his fellow multi-time champion. 

In his interview afterwards, Power berated Romain Grosjean and said he deserved “a punch in the face” for a previous impeding incident and lamented the surface off-track too. But as funny as this seemed at the time, there is a sad side to Power’s heightened emotions.

“That’s why I was so angry or just stressed,” he said. “Anything set me off, grappling with that. That’s life. People have it way worse. I’m not complaining. People have it way worse. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

A better place in 2024

With Liz’s condition vastly improved, Power was able to come into the 2024 season in a much better state and with his focus on racing again.

“I came in way more prepared,” he said. “I was just back to how I prepared for a year, which is constantly improving on my craft. I have to say I’m a better driver again this year than I was in ‘22 when I won the championship. 

“Last year was sort of a stall-out. Not much I could do. Spending a lot of time at home, looking after Liz, making sure everything was going well for her. Liz is a big part of my preparation. She does a lot for me. We’re back as a team again.”

It is very much a team effort in the Power family. Liz plays a big part in helping husband Will’s emotions stay in check across race weekends - something that was not possible amid his outburst at Road America last year. It was an emotional scene as the family celebrated and Power embraced them in victory lane on Sunday.

“It was very special,” he said. “She was in tears. So was her mother. Had Beau there. [It has] been a rough trot. Last year we didn’t get a win - she wasn’t at a lot of the races. Good stuff. Good stuff. Very positive.”

Returning to his championship flow

With his mind set back on the track again, Power feels like he is “back to that flow” that won him his second championship in 2022. In many ways, 2024 feels like a true attempt at a title defence given the issues experienced last year. But Power senses he will have to do even more to get over the line this time around.

“We have to win more this year,” he said after winning the championship with only a single victory two years ago. “It’s a tough field. I was a little cautious in ‘22 at times where I felt like I needed to push the envelope a little more. It’s that fine line. I think [Alex] Palou is the one that nails that perfectly of aggression versus risks and so on.”

Aside from crashing out of the Indy 500, Power has not finished lower than sixth this season. He has three second-place finishes to his name in addition to the win - close calls that made him question whether the victory would ever come.

“I wasn’t sure when it was going to happen,” Power said. “I’ve been digging all year. Sometimes it just works out. Long Beach I was leading by seven seconds… if a yellow doesn’t fall there, I think we were going to have a pretty good day. A reasonable chance at Barber.”

Power has heaped credit on Penske’s “very, very strong” package, which has seen him qualify inside the Fast Six four times across six road and street events compared to only once across the entirety of last season. He feels able to challenge in essentially every event.

“I feel like we’re performing at our highest level right now,” he said. “That includes Chevy. Chevy’s done a great job with the engine. I think we struggled a little bit last year compared to Honda. They went away, did their homework. So did we. Together we have a very strong combination.”

And there is healthy competition between the Penske drivers. All three now have a victory to their name inside seven races in 2024 and Power feels they are only causing him to improve even further at 43 years old.

“I’ve never stopped improving,” he said. “I've learned off all my teammates. The moment you think you’re the best, you’re going to get beaten - you’re not learning anything. I’m constantly evolving as a driver. I think the biggest step I ever took was ‘22 - the mental approach, something that I found and still use now.”

Power even discovered something new from Newgarden that he ran to his benefit at Road America.

“I came across something I hadn’t been running that Josef runs a certain way, how he runs the car,” he said. “I started driving like that, using setup, and it really helped, was just easier for me. So the car was phenomenal. I haven’t had a car like that for a long time in a race.”

The Aussie had been in third for most of the race but used the overcut to his benefit in the last pit stop sequence, staying out two laps longer than McLaughlin and one more than Newgarden as he nursed the troublesome alternate tyres.

“I couldn’t get Scott without using a lot of push-to-pass,” he said. “I sat back. I knew I had a lap of fuel on him, I was making the reds [alternate tyres] last. My in-lap was super quick. They didn’t really go off for me at all. I was babying them. [It] gave me enough of a gap on Josef to be able to get up to speed on the cold tires.”

Power is firmly targeting the championship and has the goal of “multiple wins” next on the agenda this year. And with the car and engine at his disposal, he believes a third championship success is an extremely viable possibility.

“You know how this championship goes: very tough group, no bad driver in this field,” he said. “You have to put it together very well if you want to win.”

Newgarden recovers from big crash

Newgarden ended qualifying with a 95G impact into the well-placed SAFER barrier at ‘The Kink’ after getting a wheel onto the damp kerb. The impact meant Penske opted to switch to a backup car for the No.2 Chevy for the race, for which Newgarden still started sixth.

“We’re all going to be really pleased with the one-two-three, especially with the No.2 car and the disaster yesterday,” Newgarden said post-race. “It was a real team effort to put a new car together. Everybody pitched in, the No.12, the No.2 and the No.3 [crews]. Really rewarding I think for the entire crew when you have to go through something like that, put it all together.”

But even with the work to put together the backup car after qualifying, there was never any real worry from Newgarden that his very fast initial car could be replicated.

“I’m not ever concerned if we have to build up a new car,” he said. “We have great consistency across the board. This team I think is the best as far as putting another car on track and it’s going to be the exact same thing. We switch cars quite a bit. It’s the same product every time we put it on the track. 

“That speaks volumes to the level of the team, the savvy-ness, the execution of the people. It’s just really solid. There was no concern about that. I don’t think that would have made a difference. I think we just all had a really good day.”

Newgarden is confident that he could have had the same accident in the pre-race warm-up session and still have made the race and been as competitive as he was en-route to finishing second.

“They hammered out a new car in like two hours,” he said. “It’s crazy. I could have written that thing off in warm-up and I would have made the race. It would have made the race with time to spare.”

McLaughin chimed in to say the crews “almost get excited” and relish such jobs.

A second-place finish was a good bounce-back for Newgarden after a difficult Detroit weekend following on from his second successive Indianapolis 500 the weekend prior. A 26th-place finish on the streets of the Motor City came after a spin and damage incurred by wall contact, which put him several laps behind the leader.

“There’s nothing that ever really lingers,” he said. “Personally there’s nothing that lingers. From a team side, you don’t see anything linger. We rocked up here [to Road America] to normal business. Even after yesterday with my misstep.”

“We sort of gave that one away”

While a second-place finish marks a return to form for Newgarden, he was not necessarily all that content after being overcut by Power after his final stop, losing out on the win as a result.

“We sort of gave that one away,” he said. “But all three of our cars were pretty stellar pace-wise. Whether it was the No.3, the No.12 or me, I think we all had similar pace. With that, capability for any of us to win that race was there.”

Newgarden was the first car in the starting order to start on the alternate tyres, getting the worrisome stint out of the way at the start. That left him seemingly well-placed in the race, though both McLaughlin and Power were able to hold onto Newgarden on their later stints on the softer red tyres.

“Today the warm-up was really tough on the tyres,” Newgarden said. “It was literally nearly three seconds of an advantage on an overcut. You can’t get overcut on a day like today - you’ve got to work that problem out. We pretty much had it worked out. We got to sort of a confusing place at the very end with the No.78. It’s all part of IndyCar racing. 

“You’ve got to manage the situation. I felt like I didn’t make the right call there. We could have kept going and we should have. So when you go for the undercut, that’s what happens. You just get burned. We got burned at the end.”

McLaughlin bounces back

McLaughlin also had a rough Detroit weekend as part of a rocky race for Penske. He made an unforced error that saw him wedged in a tyre barrier when running second, which did not see him incur damage but put him a lap down. 

His response was impressive, qualifying eighth in wet conditions he is not used to in an open-wheel car before taking advantage of the chaos at the start to make his way up to second.

“I thought we were really quick in parts, had a great start, led a lot of laps,” he said. “I think the strategy didn’t fall our way in terms of the overcut. We knew it was going to be strong but it was really strong today. I kind of wish we ran reds in the second stint just to get that over and done with earlier, then I could have attacked a bit more on the black tyre.”

McLaughlin was passed by Newgarden on his alternate stint before being jumped by Power’s overcut as the race winner stayed out two laps longer.

“I was pretty careful with [the alternates],” he said. “That’s half the reason why I didn’t fight Josef. Ultimately they held on pretty good. I probably would have not been able to hold Josef off regardless… Obviously thought from a points perspective, after Detroit, just nice to bring home a pretty strong result. I just had to bring that home.”

Another rewarding day for Penske

It has been a tumultuous two months for Penske in the wake of the push-to-pass infringement found to have occurred in St. Petersburg. For their drivers, it has been rewarding to prove they don’t need to flout rules to be at the front.

“Obviously Indy was a great result for Josef to win it but then also lock out the front row,” Power said. “I predicted that - I know how hard the guys are working back at the shop. The whole push-to-pass thing was just an unfortunate incident. There was nothing malicious in it. There was no intent… It just looked bad for us. 

“I feel bad for Roger [Penske]. If you’re a team like Penske, people like to pound you if something like that happens: ‘Ha, ha, we knew that’s how you guys are fast.’ I know how much work goes into it. I know they don’t even venture into the grey. It frustrates me at times because I know other teams do. But they will not do that just because of that brand. 

“Roger won’t allow that brand to be tarnished with cheating allegations. We don’t do that. There’s a lot of talk around the paddock. I know we don’t do that. I know other teams do because people push the rules. If I was a small team, I’d be doing it. That’s how you get a slight advantage.”

McLaughlin reaffirmed that the time has just “focused forward” since the incident. He added that there is “no denying” that it offered added motivation.

“They’re really firing,” Power said. “They’re at their highest level now. The competition has changed as well. You have no choice but to be at your highest level now or you simply won’t win. Just the car preparation, quality control… it’s so detail-oriented now to win in this series in particular. It’s a very tough business. If you’re not winning, you won’t last long.”


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