Insider: How Will Power's consistency, Scott Dixon's Indy 500 penalty sealed the title

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

SALINAS, Calif. – Will Power’s run to a second championship, coming off the worst full-season of his decade-plus run at Team Penske, was undoubtedly unique. Power won a single race, the first champion to do that since Tony Stewart in the early days of the IRL (during a 10-race season, importantly).

It put an emphasis on consistency. Power's strategist, Ron Ruzewski, told him before the season that if all they did was finish 5th every race, they’d be golden.

His averaging finishing position of 5.9 was good enough.

But hanging a championship-hopeful resume on podiums and top-5s instead of wins means so much more has to go your way. Had just one of Josef Newgarden’s finishes outside the top 10 (of which he had five) gone differently, we’d be talking about the No. 2 Chevy driver’s third championship and his historically strong six-win season.

Here are the five most important factors that left Power holding onto his second championship:

Sep 11, 2022; Salinas, California, USA; Team Penske driver Will Power (12) of Australia celebrates his series victory and third place race finish following the Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

Playing the long game

After a season where he won just once and racked up more finishes outside the top-10 than in it, Power entered 2022 vowing to preserve and protect every opportunity for a strong result that came his way. Rather than hunt for wins anytime he found himself in the lead pack late, Power eyed podiums and top-5s. He finished his title run with 9 and 12, respectively -- three clear of the rest of the field in both categories.

That new mindset led to three notable instances this season where Power said he might’ve previously gone for broke for a win. In particular, Power said he'd been extra careful on restarts when near the front. The first came in the season-opener’s lone caution for David Malukas’s wreck, which came right around when the lead-pack was set to pit. Having been the only one in the first five rows starting on black tires, Power switched onto reds opposite the leaders coming to the green.

Liz Power:'I knew he'd be back ... but I didn't know it'd be this long'

Down to the wire:Palou wins finale, Power locks out Newgarden with 12th podium

At the time, Power knew he could push hard and likely take the lead, but that tire compound was still very new, and he wasn’t sure if he’d end up falling off a cliff near the end of the stint. So he rode comfortably behind his pole-sitting teammate Scott McLaughlin and cruised to his first of nine podiums.

A similar situation came midseason at Mid-Ohio while running in the top-5 headed to the race’s final restart. Sitting 3rd behind McLaughlin and Alex Palou, who were running used blacks against Power's new reds, Power tried to find an organic opportunity to make a move for 1st or 2nd, rather than forcing the issue. Again, he produced a solid 3rd-place that would come in handy in the championship battle.

And in Iowa Race 2, after Newgarden’s mechanical failure left him sailing into the wall past the halfway point, Power inherited 2nd-place behind Pato O’Ward. This year’s champ said last week that despite starting the race on pole and feeling like he had a strong car under him, he opted not to burn up his tires trying to catch the Arrow McLaren SP driver on such a high-deg track. Instead, 'playing the long game' added up to a double-podium weekend.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon (9) leaves his pit box, and is assessed a speeding penalty on this pit stop during the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500, Sunday, May 29, 2022, at The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Dixon lost 500, title with pitlane speeding penalty

Power's new approach would’ve been for naught, had Dixon been traveling just 1 mph slower at the pitlane entrance timing line late in May’s Indianapolis 500. The Ganassi driver, having started on pole and methodically dominated the race with fewer than 50 laps to go, appeared in line for his first victory on the IMS oval in 14 years – until Dixon briefly locked up his tires beginning his final stop and failed to slow down to the speed limit of 60 mph.

Race control caught the error and doled out the proper drive-through penalty, erasing any chance of victory. Dixon would drop to 21st. Instead of the 115 points he would’ve picked up for a victory, Dixon came away with 33. At the time, it wasn’t clear that would have any real impact on the championship picture. Ahead of the 500, Dixon had finished in the top-10 of every race but had only logged a best finish of 5th, having gone more than a year without a win. Leaving IMS, he sat 6th in points. We all knew his season would become more Dixon-esque at some point, but a 60-point gap on his teammate, 500-winner Marcus Ericsson would be a heavy haul.

As it so happened, Dixon more than erased the gap to Ericsson. He outscored the entire field between Detroit and Portland (337 points to Newgarden’s 329, Power’s 321 and McLaughlin’s 320). Had that been coupled with a 500 victory (while keeping the rest of the finishing order the same and bumping those 1st-20th down one spot), and if you kept the results of Detroit through Portland the same, Dixon would’ve had his historic 7th championship clinched by virtue of his podium in the season’s penultimate race.

Here’s what the points would’ve looked like after Portland, if you factor in a Dixon win at IMS:

1. Scott Dixon, 585

2. Will Power, 521

3. Josef Newgarden, 501

4. Scott McLaughlin, 482

5. Marcus Ericsson, 462

Obviously, assuming the entire season would’ve gone entirely the same is overly simplistic but it’s not as if Team Penske could’ve done much more, having won 4 of 5 races from Detroit to Iowa Race 1. Even with that, in this alternate world, Dixon would’ve compiled a 78-point lead on Power after his Nashville victory with three races left. At that point, Newgarden would’ve sat 3rd, 100 points out of the lead.

This is not to take away from Power’s year. He earned his Astor Cup. Dixon made a costly mistake in something he done well over 100 times during his history in the 500. But it’s truly amazing how one minor error from a rival turned an entire season on its head.

Josef Newgarden, left, leads Will Power, of Australia, during an IndyCar Series auto race, Saturday, July 23, 2022, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.

A Newgarden Iowa sweep would've flipped the script

In a similar vein – and involving something that had nothing to do with driver error – Newgarden’s mechanical failure while racing with a 3-second lead on O’Ward stole a weekend sweep that might very well have won Newgarden the championship. Had he not crashed, given the fact he’d led 148 of the last 151 laps and that he'd been building his gap on the Arrow McLaren SP driver over the 30 laps before his accident, I think, like Dixon at the 500, it’s safe to assume Newgarden takes the checkered flag.

Instead of the 53 points for his win, Newgarden went home with 9 for 24th. It became the difference between sitting 3rd in points heading to the IMS road course, 34 points back of Ericsson, and leading the Swedish driver by 12, Power by 23 and Dixon by 46. Keeping everything else the same, Newgarden would’ve entered the west coast swing fresh off his 6th win of the year at WWT Raceway, with a 46-point edge on Power (2nd), a 57-point gap to Dixon (3rd) and 60 points to Ericsson (4th).

Entering the finale, rather than Power with a 20-point edge on Newgarden and Dixon, it would’ve been the two-time champ with a 29-point cushion to Power, and the Penske drivers’ duel for 2nd-place behind Alex Palou at Laguna Seca on Sunday would’ve felt very different.

With his pole-snagging effort Saturday, Will Power broke his tie with Mario Andretti to take sole possession of IndyCar's all-time pole mark at 68.

IndyCar's Pole King thrives from behind

Power did himself plenty of favors by starting on pole five times this year, though he notably didn’t win any of those races. But you could argue the performances most key to his championship came when he started deep in the midfield. The most pivotal came in Detroit, where after starting 16, one of three drivers in the first eight rows to begin on primary tires, Power took just 14 laps to snatch the lead from Newgarden after the reds had begun to falloff. The eventual season-champ would lead for all but two laps the rest of the way.

Perhaps the most memorable instance immediately followed one of Power’s few gaffes: spinning moments after the green flag at Mid-Ohio. Having already put himself in a hole in qualifying 21st, Power dropped seconds off the 2nd-to-last car in the 27-car field. It took him 16 laps just to work his way back to his starting spot, aided by an early yellow, but he made up 10 more spots by the halfway point and carved into the top-5 for his eventual 3rd-place finish with 25 laps to go. Along with his 19th-to-4th run at Barber, those three races accounted for more than 80 points gained from where he started to finish races. For a driver whose championship run rested on those nine podiums and 12 top-5s, those three performances were vital.

Team Penske driver Will Power (12) stands by his pit box Friday, July 29, 2022, during practice for the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Weathering the storm

Those charges from the back at Detroit and Mid-Ohio could not have come in a more impactful time in Power’s season as he weathered the worst qualifying run of his career (five consecutive starts outside the top-10). The points impact was obvious, but in a season where Power emphasized the importance of keeping his mental edge, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see his strong start to the year slip out of his grasp, had the 500, Detroit, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Toronto all been finishes outside the top-10.

When you’re rarely winning races, it’s one thing to keep that level of performance up when, even after a rough weekend, you rebound and remind yourself of the potential that’s there. But that could've easily amounted to two months of disappointment and frustration.

Power's don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff mentality strung together the best start of his career through five races (no finishes outside the top-4). In the opening five-race stretches since 2017 (35 races), Power had totaled seven top-4s total. Those slow starts, he said, left him desperate for results. Power functions best when he’s able to run with a slight edge, but he has a tipping point, and it’s fair to wonder if, having found himself in a massive hole for the title just past the halfway point, things might not have looked so smooth down the stretch. He finished with five podiums over the final seven races.

Several of those would’ve had to have been must-wins that close to the front – precisely the position Power said was so important not to have to be in as he was closing in on Ericsson and then gapping Newgarden and Dixon.