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Power's title drive starts in St. Petersburg

Three years in a row, Will Power has entered the last legs of the IndyCar Series season leading the race for the points championship.

And three years in a row, he has crashed.

He has brushed the wall, collided in the pits and found an unfortunate groove he could not escape. But one thing the 32-year-old Australian hasn't done in the past six months is dwell on a string of disappointments that have kept one of the sport's top drivers without a series title.

"I haven't really given it a thought about what happened last year," Power said. "You're focusing on the job at hand."

That job: break through with Penske Racing's first IndyCar championship in seven years, a task that begins with next Sunday's opener, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The streets of St. Petersburg have never been an issue for Power, who won the race from the pole in 2010 and finished second in 2011. He has never started outside the top six or finished outside the top eight.

Power set a track record (105.585 mph) last March to claim his third consecutive pole but settled for seventh place because of a flawed pit strategy and one failed restart. He'll enter the week as a top contender to join Penske teammate Helio Castroneves as the only drivers with multiple St. Petersburg wins.

"I'm telling you, Will is probably the main competitor this year," said Castroneves, the defending race champion and a three-time grand prix winner. "He's an amazing talent, especially in the road courses and street courses.

"He's pushed me and showed me ways I never thought would be possible."

Power has been the series' top driver on road courses each of the past three seasons, averaging a fourth-place finish with 13 victories. He has placed outside the top seven in only four of those 30 races.

Power's problems have been confined to ovals. In 19 events since 2010, he has one victory — a short-distance win at Texas — with 14 finishes outside the top seven.

"We definitely found some stuff on ovals," said Power, who leads the series with 14 wins and 21 poles since joining Penske full time in 2010. "A lot of little things."

And those little things could matter for Power, who has been second in the series by three, 18 and five points the past three seasons after late oval struggles.

In 2010, Power was 12 points ahead of Dario Franchitti entering Homestead but ran too high and pushed his car too hard. He rubbed the wall hard enough to wreck his suspension.

The next year, he led Franchitti by 11 points going into the final two races but wrecked in the pits at Kentucky, and he went airborne in the next race, during the crash that killed St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas, a race that was never completed.

And in the September finale at Fontana, Power caught a seam in the track while passing rival Ryan Hunter-Reay. Power ended up in the wall. Hunter-Reay ended up as series champion.

"He's beyond that," said Tim Cindric, Power's race strategist and the president of Penske Racing. "It's something he doesn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about. If anything, it drives him farther."

Cindric said Power had his best offseason since coming to Penske. He's more determined. He's homed in on the little details. He's more experienced.

And instead of dwelling on three years of close calls, Power is focused on running a consistent season that could turn him from a winner into a champion.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

.Fast facts

Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

What: IndyCar season opener, plus races in other series, including Indy Lights and Pro Mazda

When/where: Friday-March 24, downtown streets

Defending champion: Helio Castroneves

IndyCar schedule: Friday, practices 11:10 a.m. and 2:40 p.m.; Saturday, practice 10:25 a.m., qualifying 2:05 p.m.; Sunday, warmup 8:45 a.m., race noon

Tickets: Prices range from $20 for ages 12 and under for Friday and Saturday to $135 for a three-day adult upper-reserved seat. Paddock passes and convenience charges extra. Details or to buy: gpstpete.com or call (727) 898-4639, ext. 225

Power's title drive starts in St. Petersburg 03/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 10:53pm]
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