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After Grand Prix of Baltimore, Will Power's hold on points chase loosens

Open-Wheel RacingAuto RacingGrand Prix of BaltimoreMichael AndrettiDan WheldonPenske Racing

The Grand Prix of Baltimore was IndyCar points leader Will Power's chance to wrap up his first title on a street course, the kind of race track that is his forte. He couldn't do it. Now he has to go to Fontana, Calif., to a 500-mile race on an oval. The mere thought of it is enough to make Michael Andretti, who owns the car driven by Power's main foe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, just a little bit cocky.

"We're going to win this thing," Andretti said as soon as Sunday's Grand Prix was over and his driver, Hunter-Reay, had won the Baltimore race and closed within 17 points of Power.

Later, Andretti would elaborate. He pointed out that Hunter-Reay is a multi-talented driver who has had success on every kind of race track — road course, street course and oval. And that Power has not.

In fact, Power has only one oval victory to his name — a win that came last year at Texas on a 1 ½-mile oval.

Now, to wrap up his first title after two near-misses in the previous two years, Power must finish at least fourth on the 2-mile, D-shaped oval outside of Los Angeles.

Has he ever raced at the California track?

"No," Power said.

Not driven a lap?

"Never. No."

Andretti, who thought that was the case before Power said it, smiled as he considered the new situation.

"I think we've got them worried and we should have them worried, if he's not," Andretti said. "I think we are really looking forward to it. We did exactly what we needed to do [in Baltimore]."

On Sunday, Power could have clinched the championship and Hunter-Reay, whose team qualified badly, putting him back in the pack in 10th place for the start, gave him every chance.

But Andretti made the right call when rain started to fall in the early part of the race. He kept Hunter-Reay on slicks, the tread-less tires Indy cars use on dry pavement, while Power and his Team Penske crew debated too long over their strategy and then made what turned out to be the wrong call.

When it got down to crunch time, Hunter-Reay was in position to make a bold — if controversial — dash to the lead on a restart on lap 170 of the 175-mile race, and won.

Power finished sixth and saw his 37-point lead cut by 20.

To win the title, he must finish fourth at Fontana on Sept. 15.

Still, Power was seeing the positives after Sunday's race and even managed to have a little fun when he saw Hunter-Reay.

"It's all good," he said. "We have a 17-point lead. We would have been happy to take that at the start of the season. And yeah, it's going to be interesting, a 500-mile race. But it's actually not bad. Good news is, if I take Hunter-Reay out in the last race, we crash out together, I win.

"So let's go side-by-side," Power continued, as he saw Hunter-Reay, and then congratulated him on his win. "Good job, man. I had a feeling you would come back."

This is the seventh straight year the series points race has come down to the final race. Power has been involved in three of those, counting this season. In 2010, he entered the final with an 11-point lead, but crashed out and saw Dario Franchitti collect the crown by five points.

Last season, he was leading by 11 points going into the next-to-last race in Kentucky, was caught up in an accident and went into the final race of the season at Las Vegas 18 points behind. That 18-point margin stood for Franchitti's fourth championship crown when a crash on lap 11 at Las Vegas resulted in the death of Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. The race was stopped and the points race frozen from the previous race.

"Maybe [the Fontana] race will be the first last race that I finish, because every year I get crashed out," Power said. "So I'm determined this time to just finish the last race and finish it as the leader of the championship.

"We'll have two tests [at Fontana] before the race. We'll get to understand."

Unlike in past years, when Power's main foe was Franchitti, a man vastly experienced in championship races, this season in Hunter-Reay he has an opponent who is a 10-year veteran is but experiencing his first championship run.

Both Power and Hunter-Reay have had similar seasons, with each winning three races back-to-back-to-back and also suffering major disappointments. Hunter-Reay's latest setback came at Sonoma, Calif., last week, when he was involved in a crash in the closing laps. For Power, this week in Baltimore saw his potentially winning car denied by circumstances for the third week in a row.

"Will and I were talking about it the other day, the bad luck I've had the past couple of races. This guy knows the bad luck, too," Hunter-Reay said. "It's tough, but that's the way racing is."

Said Power: "We both understand the bad luck thing. It can be so cruel; what happened to him last week, to me last year in Kentucky, that sort of thing. But that's racing.

"The guy who has the least amount of those sort of days wins the championship"

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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