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A week after finishing 2nd in Sonoma, Will Power wants to repeat in Baltimore

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Team Penske driver Will Power is still a little disappointed about not winning the Grand Prix of Sonoma last weekend, but his energy level picks up when he hears the magic word.

Baltimore.

"That [Baltimore] race, it was like a Formula One race," he said, his blue eyes wide open. "You know we worried about coming here, a first-time event. But the crowd was awesome. It was a party atmosphere in the paddock and everyone left saying, 'Why didn't we come here years ago?'

"For me, being on that podium after we won, with all the people — it was the best ceremony I've had in my career. It was great!"

And now, Power, 31, wants to make it even better. He has a chance to wrap up the IZOD IndyCar championship here and celebrate on the podium he loves so much.

Power, however, has been in this position before, sitting in first with two races to go. Each time the title slipped away. Now with driver Ryan Hunter-Reay 36 points behind, followed by Helio Castroneves, 41 points back, Scott Dixon, 54 points behind and rookie of the year Simon Pagenaud within 85, Power is not looking at a fait accompli.

But he said he isn't worrying about what's happened in the past either.

"The biggest mistake I could make would be to think about what happened before," he said Wednesday, after arriving in town early for Sunday's second edition of the Grand Prix of Baltimore. "If you start being cautious that's when you get caught out. This 36 point lead is the most I've ever had. If I get caught up in something, that's just the way the marbles roll. But my job is to do the absolute best job I can this weekend — whatever that is."

Power can clinch the championship if he finishes with a 54-point lead in the standings. That means he needs to gain 18 more points on Hunter-Reay, 23 more on Castroneves and ahead of the other five drivers who are still mathematically eligible.

But those who are eligible are not giving up.

"In my mind, the championship is wide open," Hunter-Reay said. "We've been unfortunate the last two races, losing points. But we showed earlier this season what we can do. We've made up a gap of 70-plus points in three races, so, hopefully, we can make up 36 in two.

"We're focused on one thing: winning."

Even Pagenaud, who has fought his way into fifth place, said the beauty of racing is that it can't be programmed.

"Will certainly has what it takes to win," Pagenaud said. "He, Hunter-Reay and Castroneves, they are all good enough to win. To be where we are is quite something for a rookie, but I think we can do better.

"Winning the championship is all about details. You can go fast, but the matter is execution in the pits, in passing, in qualifying. So many little details - and strategy is also very difficult."

For the more veteran Power and Hunter-Reay, the strategy appears simple.

"We have to outqualify Will and run up front," said Hunter Reay, who drives for Andretti Autosports. After a decade he is in his first championship battle. "I think the ball is in our court. We have to make it happen. We've got to make it happen."

Said Power, "The best place to be is on the pole at the start of the race and in the lead through the race. It's a position that cuts down the percentages on getting involved in something."

A year ago, Power followed that game plan to perfection, winning the pole and then cruising to a 10.2-second victory in the inaugural race on Baltimore's 2.04-mile street course. He'd take the points lead the following week in Japan, but Franchitti, a master craftsman, would pull back into the lead the next week and win his fourth crown in the final race by18 points.

Each of the last six years the title has been won at the final race of the season.

Does Power really have the willpower to block all that out?

"Probably not," he said, without blinking. "I don't think it's possible not to worry. But it's only when you think about it that you worry. That's what worrying is, thinking about it. I think being in the situation a couple of times, though, actually helps."

Last Sunday, Power looked like he would win the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. But he finished second after a delay in his pit on a tire change combined with slow traffic on the course under caution allowed his teammate, Ryan Briscoe, to take the lead on the closing laps and go on to win.

"That's sports," Power said. "It's what happens in sports. Ups and downs. It's just the way it goes and it's to be expected. One of the great things about IndyCar is that you don't know who is going to win. It's really awesome.

"And honestly, this is the most competitive field I've ever been in."

But Power said Baltimore's curvy, bumpy and possibly sweltering course suits him.

"All the bumps, we loved it last year," he said. "Every stand was full of people. On the parade lap, it was thrilling to see all the stands full. It's inspiring. And the track being physical and almost unbearable, as well, when it's hot, I like it. The more physical it is, the more fit you are, the better you do — and we train like a triathlete."

The street course won't be quite the same. It will still run down Pratt Street for the start and circle round past the Inner Harbor before making that elbow-like turn the drivers call a hairpin at the Science Center on Light Street.

But getting down Pratt and through the first turn onto Light will actually be faster, now that the chicane, the series of small, tight, man-made turns designed to slow cars down before they reached the light rail tracks, has been removed. And the first turn has been widened, encouraging drivers to enter the corner side-by-side.

It is a situation Power thinks will add to the fun of the race for the fans, as well as for the drivers, but he does add a word of caution.

"I think taking the chicane out will make us a good 15 miles per hour quicker," he said. "It will also make the railroad tracks that much bumpier. It might be fine – I hope. If it is you'll be cruising by the time you reach that first turn and that will make it as challenging as it was, if not more so."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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