To surpass or equal the achievement of someone named Unser usually constitutes a rather noteworthy accomplishment in the world of Indy car racing. And in winning Sunday's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Scott Dixon actually managed to do both this past weekend.
The Kiwi's 35th career victory broke out of a tie with Al Unser, Jr. for sixth-place on the all-time wins list, and vaulted into a tie with Al Jr.'s uncle Bobby for fifth.
Now, I could shower Dixon in superlatives all day long. But in the interests of brevity, I'll briefly repeat something I wrote two years ago, when I took a historical look at Dixon's career shortly after he won that year's race at Mid-Ohio.
Given Dixon's age (he turned 34 this past July 28th), and the fact many of Indy car's all-time greats peaked in their 30s (Bobby Unser scored 28 of his 35 wins after turning 35), a very plausible scenario exists, in which Dixon can mount a quiet assault on the Indy car record books. While A.J. Foyt's 67 career wins are likely well out of reach, a more than outside chance exists Dixon could surpass Mario Andretti as Indy car's second all-time winningest.
In short, we are watching one of the great careers in Indy car history play out before our very eyes, and Sunday's race was merely the latest installment.
That said, Dixon's latest achievement was not the biggest story to emerge this weekend from the picturesque California wine country.
As noted in last week's Milwaukee Postscript, we knew what the storyline was going to be in the final two races of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series at Sonoma Raceway and this upcoming weekend at Auto Club Speedway: Team Penske's Will Power
Any fair and logical analysis of Power's somewhat star-crossed career should begin with the acknowledgement that he has unquestionably been the best driver on the IndyCar circuit the past five years. While I can pepper you with statistics that support that position all day long, just know that in that span the Toowoomba, Australia native has won more races (20) than any other driver (Dixon has the second-most with 13). Perhaps even more impressive is Power has scored a mind-boggling 31 pole positions in that span of 85 races.
Of course, no one ever talks about those things.
No, the narrative surrounding Power centers not on his many triumphs, rather his trials, tribulations, and often colossal meltdowns, which to be fair, are quite numerous as well. Most notably, Power finished second in the series championship three consecutive years from 2010-2012, after entering the series' finale each year with a chance to win the title. Whether it was inspired drives by opponents such as Dario Franchitti or Ryan Hunter-Reay, missteps by Team Penske on pit road, head-scratching mistakes by Power himself, or some combination of the above, Power has not been able to get over that championship hump, so to speak.
This, combined with the Aussie's wear-his-emotions-on-his-sleeve persona, which stand in great contrast to many of his cold, calculating, rivals like Dixon, Dario Franchitti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, have created the narrative of a talented, yet mentally fragile driver prone to self-implosion. And whether fair or unfair, Power's near-misses and the circumstances surrounding them, have lent credence to the notion, he is well, something of a head case.
Further, there has been little to dispel this notion in…
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Coming off consecutive wins to close the 2013 season at Houston and Fontana, Power was the favorite of many (me included) to score his first championship in 2014. In particular, his win at Fontana seemed a major breakthrough as Power was dominant on a high-speed oval, where he had struggled in the past. And when he opened 2014 with a win at St. Pete followed by a runner-up finish at Long Beach, forecasts of a championship march were given credence.
While Power has remained quick in the races since, he has likewise imploded on several occasions; perhaps most notably a bizarre on-camera interview after the Pocono race, in which he viciously chopped teammate Helio Castroneves, and was issued a drive-thru penalty for blocking, at a time Team Penske seemed poised for a 1-2-3 finish.
The Pocono incident is part of quite a resume Power has put together in 2014, which includes:
- Veering off-track at Barber while leading
- Receiving a drive-thru penalty at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis for hitting pit equipment
- Receiving a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit road at the Indianapolis 500
- Receiving a drive-thru penalty for avoidable contact at the Detroit (Race 2)
- Receiving a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit road at Texas
- The above noted incident at Pocono, which drew the ire of Team Penske President Tim Cindric
- Throwing away a top-10 finish at Iowa, getting in the wall late in the race
And you can add to the above…
Power entered the Sonoma weekend in familiar territory: a commanding lead in the series championship with only a few races remaining. In short, the series title was and remains, Power's to lose. That notion was reinforced when Power took pole Saturday.
From pole, Power pulled away at the start to a commanding lead. However, when Power came to pit road during a caution, he dropped to 8th in the running order, before a spin on lap 39, dropped him to 21st position.
It is true Power did make a strong charge back to finish 10th and salvage some valuable points headed into the series finale at Fontana. It is also true that even with a win at Sonoma, Power would not have clinched the championship. Further, the fact Castroneves, who sits second in the championship finished 18th means Power maintains a rather commanding lead, and will clinch the championship at Fontana with a sixth-place finish or better.
Speaking of Fontana
The above noted, it is likewise true Power had every opportunity to put the title far out of reach with a solid, mistake free run at Sonoma. Yet just as he has on so many occasions in 2014, and just as he has in previous late-season races, Power made a needless error. And if things don't pan out Saturday evening at Auto Club Speedway, the often-wrapped-up-in-his-own-head Power will not have to look far to find where things went wrong.
As for Sonoma, the error has given Castroneves and to a lesser extent Simon Pagenaud, hope entering Saturday evening's silly double-points finale. Castroneves needs a good run (fourth and bonus points or better) combined with Power slipping up, while Pagenaud needs to win, combined with Power finishing 18th or worse. While Dixon and Hunter-Reay remain mathematically alive it should be noted that they will be eliminated if Power merely starts Saturday's race.
In short, the odds overwhelmingly favor Power lifting the Astor Cup Saturday evening (well, Sunday morning on the East Coast, but that's a different matter altogether).
Last week, I wrote:
"the unquestioned story at both Sonoma and Fontana will be Will Power's ability, or lack thereof, to actually manage himself.
Yes, when it comes to these final two races, Will Power is the story folks. And if the story is Will Power, the story is going to end either with the talented Aussie enjoying one long-overdue coronation justifiably recognizing him as one of this era's great Indy car drivers; or we're going to see the 12-Train derail in some unbeknownst manner, in which only the 12-Train can."
The happenings of this past weekend at Sonoma make the above sentence as relevant now. With regard to Power, he either exorcises his well-documented demons in this weekend's MAVTV 500 or adds another chapter to a long, detailed and not-so-distinguished book of mind-boggling near-misses.
Yes, triumph or train-wreck. It's hard to imagine anything in between.
Brian Carroccio is a columnist for AutoRacing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com