MADISON, Ill. – Will Power used to hate racing on ovals about as much as he hates conserving fuel.
The oval part has changed considerably this season. The fuel part?
“I was just, ‘Ah! Come on! Let’s race this properly!“’ Power said Saturday night, after some of his closest rivals began saving every last drop as they tried to finish on one less pit stop.
“I was just so stoked,” Power said, “when they said, ‘Let’s just go hard.“’
With a splash of fuel in the tank and the encouragement of team owner Roger Penske over the radio, Power drove wide open to the checkered flag, beating fuel-conserving Alexander Rossi and series leader Scott Dixon to claim the victory at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Rossi wound up second but still took a nibble out of Dixon’s point lead – the difference between them is down to 26 points with races left at Portland and Sonoma.
Simon Pagenaud was fourth and Zach Veach, who led an IndyCar race for the first time, was fifth.
“The Andretti guys and Rossi did a fantastic job making that no-stop situation work,” Dixon said, “and big congrats to Will. He was fast at the end of the race.”
Power is another 42 points back but can’t be counted out yet, given the double points at the season finale and his prodigious talent on road courses. He won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis this year, just before his big oval breakthrough at the Indy 500, and his win at Gateway was the 35th of his career – moving Power into a tie with Bobby Unser for seventh on the career list.
“I was kind of mad at Dixon. He pushed me out in the marbles. It kind of gave me motivation to get him back,” Power said. “Man, I never had so much fun and passed so many cars.”
It was the first race for IndyCar since Robert Wickens was involved in a terrifying wreck last Sunday at Pocono. His car touched had Ryan Hunter-Reay’s early in the race, sending the Canadian driver spinning into the catch fence and obliterating his car.
Wickens underwent surgery to insert titanium rods and screws to stabilize his spine, and he had another procedure later in the week to his extremities. But while his prognosis is still unclear, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team announced shortly before the green flag that Wickens was breathing without medical assistance and had talked to his family for the first time since the wreck.
His presence was still felt at Gateway, whether it was his backup car parked in front of the team haulers or the RW6 hats in the paddock and No. 6 stickers worn by his rivals.
Team owner Sam Schmidt elected to field only James Hinchcliffe’s car this week, though Wickens’ close friend and fellow Canadian was dealing with injuries of his own. Hinchcliffe was hit in the hands by debris from Wickens’ crash, breaking a finger and resulting in some swelling.
Hinchcliffe struggled with handling all night and wound up ninth.
The race was shaping up as a fuel-mileage competition all along on the 1.25-mile oval, with some teams trying to make it the 248 laps on three stops. But when Ryan Hunter-Reay, who’d been running third at the time, lost power to bring out the caution it appeared fuel strategy wouldn’t matter.
Rossi gave it a shot anyway, refusing to race with the leaders as he saved every drop of fuel. It was reminiscent of the way he conserved late to win the 100th edition of the Indy 500.
“I was seeing the (fuel) numbers I was trying to get and I was thinking, ‘Man, everyone is going to have to go really slow to get it,“’ Power said. “Roger (Penske) said, ‘Go,’ so we did.”
Rossi had won back-to-back races at Mid-Ohio and Pocono, and his second-place finish at Gateway was another good result. But he’s running out of time to catch Dixon, who is trying to clinch a fifth series title that would move him into second behind A.J. Foyt on the career list.
Sebastien Bourdais brought out the first caution – and for most of the night the only one – when he got loose and slapped the Turn 2 wall on the opening lap. Bourdais has just two top-five finishes since winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg. “I didn’t try to do anything stupid or special,” he said. “The car just got away, I guess.”
Few drivers know what to expect as IndyCar returns to Portland next weekend after a long absence. One who does is Bourdais, who won the last race there on June 10, 2007.