By Josh Roller
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time, Australia is home to a winner of the Indianapolis 500. Will Power delivered the victory on Sunday to give team owner Roger Penske his 17th victory in the 102nd running. Power emerged after six lead changes in the last 25 laps to win the race for the first time in 11 starts.
“Overwhelming.” he said. “Amazing. It’s funny, you forget where you are, you’re so immersed in the race…On the white flag lap I started screaming because I just knew I was going to win it.”
After years of hard work, Power, who had often become frustrated on oval courses, became the first driver to sweep the two Indianapolis races in one month of May, as he won the IndyCar Grand Prix two weeks earlier. The victory on Sunday was the 34th of Power’s career.
“It was the last box to tick to be considered as a very successful driver,” Power said.
He finished 3.1589 seconds ahead of Ed Carpenter, who started from the pole position for a third time, dominated the early stages of the race and led as late as Lap 172. Scott Dixon, the 2008 champion, finished third. Alexander Rossi, the 2016 winner who started 32nd, finished fourth after several daring passes briefly put him into the lead on Lap 173.
Soon after Power made the left turn on to Victory Lane, he became so excited that he sprayed the ceremonial drink of milk on Festival Princess Natalie Murdock. “I felt bad,” he said. “When I turned around … she was covered in milk. I didn’t realize she was behind me.”
From the start of the race, passing was at a premium when newly-engineered aero kits made their first appearance on the famed 2.5 mile oval. The lead changed 30 times, 38 fewer than the record set in 2013 and 24 fewer than the total two years ago. Only a handful of the lead changes were under green flag racing. Most occurred when the leader pitted and the lead was acquired by a following driver.
What may have been some of the most spirited battles for the lead came on restarts where 2013 champion Tony Kanaan found himself in second place behind Carpenter.
After a caution on Lap 58, the race resumed on Lap 63 where Kanaan passed Carpenter before the start-finish line. However, the lead was short lived as Carpenter got back around Kanaan two laps later. Following another caution on Lap 68, Kanaan had another shot at the owner-driver. This time however, the lead stuck and Kanaan led the following 17 laps.
With near-record heat adding to handling issues – the high of 91 degrees was one less than the record set in 1937 – caution periods became a major part of the race. Seven yellow flags were displayed for a total of 41 laps. The first caution of the day occurred when the slow car of James Davison was hit by defending champion Takuma Sato in turn 3 on Lap 48.
On Lap 58, Ed Jones lost control of his car and spun on the exit of turn 2. He was able to climb out of his car but complained of head and neck pain and was transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital. Jones was released, but will be reevaluated before next weekend’s duel events at Belle Isle, Mich.
Danica Patrick, in her first Indianapolis 500 since 2011 and the final appearance of her career, had a similar spin on Lap 68 and made contact with both the outside and inside retaining walls. An understandably upset Patrick gave thanks to all those who supported her. “I’m appreciative for all the fans, for Go Daddy, for Ed Carpenter Racing for giving me a good car,” she said. Patrick finished 30th, her worst result in eight starts and only the second time she did not complete the race.
The final four cautions were for spins from Sebastien Bourdais on Lap 139, three-time champion Helio Castroneves on Lap 146, Sage Karam on Lap 154 and the final one when Kanaan spun off of turn two on Lap 189.
“Yeah, the car is pretty tricky,” Dixon said. “It seems like you get a lot of understeer. At the end if you get some clear air maybe from the car, if you get high on the car in front of you, it can snap around pretty quickly.”
The closing laps had Oriol Servia leading, followed by Stefan Wilson and Jack Harvey. Power had pitted on Lap 172 and was running fourth. He was going to be able to run as hard as he could to chase down the three competitors in front of him, as they were going to have to save fuel in order to avoid a pit stop. When Kanaan spun on Lap 189, the field was bunched back up and fuel became less of a concern.
The final restart occurred with seven laps to go. Wilson passed Servia, followed by Harvey. Power defended his fourth-place position from Dixon in what may have been the race winning move.
Power then passed Servia and was charging down on second-place Harvey and leader Wilson, when with four laps to go, both suddenly dived onto pit road for fuel. They had not been able to save enough under caution and were not going to make it.
“It’s like, the gates opened,” Power said. “It was amazing.”
Penske added: “We had the fuel, which we needed. They didn’t.”
Power would not be contested and cruised his way to victory. He became the 12th driver to deliver an Indianapolis 500 victory for the owner known as The Captain.
“Look,” Penske said, “this closes the book for what he wanted to accomplish in IndyCar: win a championship, now is tied for winning the most races as an Indy driver for the team, and the Indy 500 is something that he wanted to do from the very beginning.
“He’s had some ups and downs,” Penske went on. “Championships slipped away from him, two or three almost, in a row…He’s in a different world right now.”
Power had won 20 races on road and street courses before capturing his first oval victory at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in 2013. “[It] just comes with experience,” Power said. “…I feel like every time I go to an oval, I have a chance to win. That definitely wasn’t the feeling at the beginning of my career.”