FONTANA, Calif. – How ironic that in a season when he was nailed for a series of drive-through speeding penalties that Will Power would clinch his first Verizon IndyCar Series championship when his teammate and only remaining championship contender Helio Castroneves lost his chance with a drive-through penalty.
Castroneves was in the heat of the battle for the championship before he made his final stop on lap 217. But Castroneves went to the apron and then back to the track – a violation of the commitment line. That mistake was clearly seen on Castroneves’ in-car camera and IndyCar Race Control had no choice but to penalize Castroneves, virtually ending his championship bid.
Power, meantime, had his hands full with a race car that was all over the track as it suffered handling issues. With Castroneves running one lap down after serving the penalty, Power was instructed by Team Penske President Tim Cindric to “play it cool” so Power dropped back to eighth place while Castroneves was running 14th.
Up front, it was a Target/Chip Ganassi Racing battle between Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon with Kanaan prevailing to score his first victory of the season in Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. Kanaan became the 11th different winner this season to tie an IndyCar Series record.
After three major disappointments when he entered the final race of the season from 2010-12 only to lose the title by mistakes and crashes, Power is finally the Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
Power finished ninth and Castroneves 14th with Power breaking into tears inside of his helmet.
“Will has deserved it for quite a while and to finish it today the way he did it is a big team victory,” Cindric said. “I want to hurry up and get it over with.”
Power reveled in his victory by soaking up the championship.
“Oh my God, I was crying over the line,” said Power, who started next to last in the 21-car field in the race. “It’s surreal, man. I can’t believe it. I am so mentally exhausted now. My hands are number from holding onto the wheel for so long. I can’t believe I won it.
“The last 14 days have been the worst in my life. I couldn’t sleep and stressing. I feel so bad for my wife. I didn’t think it would happen until it happens. I can’t believe I’m champion. I can’t believe it. Oh, God.
“When I took the lead I thought I had a shot and when Helio got the drive-through I knew I could win it. That’s 15 years of hard work.”
Castroneves congratulated his crew after his finish but both drivers raced hard to the end of the race.
“It’s great when you talk about the team. I was pushing extremely hard and I though I could do that through the pits,” Castroneves said. “It was my bad. Sorry guys. Thank you for a great season. Well done, Will. You did a great job. I hope the rate at his house doesn’t increase because every time I sleep at his house he charges me.
“Congratulations, Will, you are the champion.”
The race went 175 laps before the first caution period when Ryan Hunter-Reay spun out coming off turn four. After pit stops Kanaan was in front ahead of teammate Dixon followed by Castroneves, Power, Montoya and Carpenter. Castroneves and Power went wheel-to-wheel in a battle for position sending the dust flying before Power went low on the track and took the lead by passing both Dixon and Kanaan.
He had successfully driven from the last row to first place.
But it wasn’t long before he faded back to fourth place after Kanaan, Dixon and Carpenter were all able to drive ahead of his No. 12 Chevy on lap 197.
Castroneves made his final pit stop with 33 laps to go but was penalized for the commitment line violation, ending his chance at the championship when he went a lap down. Dixon was second when he made his final pit stop one lap later and Power followed for a one-quarter-wing adjustment.
Kanaan, the leader, pitted on the next lap as the fight became even more fierce before Kanaan pulled away at the end.
The 17th win of Kanaan’s career was his first in car No. 10 and its previous driver, Dario Franchitti, greeted him in victory lane.
“It’s been a long time coming and Chip Ganassi gave me the opportunity,” Kanaan said. “Finally. Chip Ganassi told me in the team meeting if we win the last race we get to brag for seven months. Long time coming. We had close calls all year. We have a tradition in the shop where the winner gets his picture on the wall and I finally did it.
“This shows our potential as the team turned things around. We have a great team here. A great group of guys. It’s how a team works.”