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Season Review/Preview: Will Power

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst INovember 17, 2009

SPARTA, KY - AUGUST 01:  Will Power drives the #12 Penske Truck Rental Dallara Honda during practice for the IRL IndyCar Series Meijer Indy 300 on August 1, 2009 at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
Darrell Ingham/Getty Images

The 2009 season was one of great opportunity for Will Power, the affable Australian who came over to the IndyCar Series after its merger with Champ Car.

Winner of the final Champ Car race, held at Long Beach in the spring of 2008, he lost his Team Australia sponsorship at the end of that season, leaving him without a ride despite a 12th-place finish in points.

Luckily for Power, Roger Penske recognized his talent and picked him over Justin Wilson to replace Helio Castroneves in Penske Racing's No. 3 car while Castroneves faced federal tax evasion charges.

While the ride was only guaranteed as long as the trial lasted, it provided Power with a great opportunity to either cement himself as the next great Penske driver or make himself attractive to other teams and sponsors when the gig was up.

Unfortunately for him, the gig only lasted one race (in which Power finished sixth) before Castroneves was acquitted. In keeping with an earlier promise, Penske provided Power with rides at Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500, driving the No. 12 Verizon Wireless car.

Power rose to the occasion by winning the pole at Long Beach, leading 16 laps, and finishing second to Dario Franchitti in the race. At Indianapolis, Power ran near the front all day, and while he did not lead any laps, he finished fifth as teammate Castroneves won.

His impressive performances, a far cry from his inconsistency in Champ Car in 2007 and IndyCar in 2008, convinced Penske to funnel in sponsorship dollars from his truck rental company, allowing Power to run five more races.

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The first took place in Toronto, which had been off the 2008 calendar; when it was on the Champ Car schedule in 2007, he took his second career victory. Unfortunately, Franchitti again bested Power, who finished third.

Power's next race was at Edmonton, a track where he had never had much luck; in 2007, his steering rack broke, causing his retirement, and despite setting the fastest lap in 2008, he finished 22nd.

But Power bounced back in 2009, winning the pole and leading 90 of the race's 95 laps as Penske cars finished first, second, and fourth. It was Power's first win in the Dallara-Honda and second win to count for IndyCar Series points.

He finished ninth at Kentucky and skipped Mid-Ohio before heading to Sonoma. Unfortunately, Power's season ended there, as a practice crash with Nelson Philippe left him with two fractured vertebrae and a concussion.

Power finished 19th in the championship standings. Because of the quality of his finishes in those six races, he was the highest-ranked driver not to run the full schedule, beating out Tomas Scheckter (who ran five more races than Power) by 20 points.

To his credit, Power did not once complain to the media about missing races and thus becoming a non-factor in last year's championship, and his patience has paid off with a full-time ride. Penske is shuttering its Grand-Am team to make room at the inn for Power, and that team's old crew will work for him, as they did during his limited run last year.

Obviously, Penske equipment is top-notch, and Power has proven that he can win in the IndyCars. However, three major questions remain to be answered before we can know the true caliber of the third Penske team.

First, how will Power rebound from his injuries? The Sonoma incident was a terrifying crash, the kind that drivers will always remember. Some say that once a driver takes a hard enough lick, he's never quite as aggressive again.

Second, will Power show consistency over an entire season? He's beginning to learn the ovals, but he even struggled on road courses in the 2008 season, his last full year in the car. Even 2007, his best open-wheel season to date, was spotted with too many retirements and poor finishes to be a true title contender.

Third, will a third full-time Penske car be on par with the first two or bring the whole organization down? When Chip Ganassi expanded to a three-car team in 2005, the results were horrible—2003 champion Scott Dixon could only manage 13th in points, and the other two cars were non-factors all year.

Granted, the engine and chassis situation was much different, but having too many teams under one roof can hurt both the established and the expansion rides. (Just ask Richard Childress in Sprint Cup or Michael Andretti in IndyCar.)

Will Power has proven himself a tremendous talent in the past, and Penske Racing is one of the elite teams in the IndyCar Series, so all of these questions may mean nothing come race day. There is plenty of reason for all parties to set their expectations high in 2010, but until Power gets comfortable with the car again, it may take a while for the No. 12 team to run up front.

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