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Sunday hadn't exactly started well for Will Power, after he was woken up at 3.30am by the most violent earthquake he's ever personally experienced. That put him on edge for much of the rest of the day, but the minute he was back in the cockpit of the #12 leading the field to the green flag for the GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway all of that seemed to be well and truly behind him.
For the next 37 laps, everything was on target for him to clinch his fourth victory at Sonoma; even better, his Penske team mate Helio Castroneves had been involved in a first lap incident that lad left him at the back of the field, so there was a very real possibility that Power could end up with enough points to clinch the title this weekend and avoid a season finale shoot-out next weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
Then it all went wrong: Power dropped to eighth after a round of pit stops, and in his haste to get going again he ended up spinning at the hairpin and dropping to the rear - even behind Castroneves. It would be a long afternoon from there as he battled his way back up the running order, painfully slowly.
"It took me by surprise when I spun," he admitted. "Thankfully I kept if off the clutch when it happened. That's just racing.
"I tried to save fuel towards the end there with no overtake so I could make it to the end there, just going for points. Would have liked to had a better finish but the Verizon Chevy Team will look to Fontana working towards the Championship."
A three-wide race to the line with Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais meant that Power ended up in tenth place; as Castroneves finished back in 18th it meant that despite his mid-race mishap, Power had successfully extended his lead over the Brazilian in the championship to 51 points. With 104 points on offer at the final event next Saturday that's still not home safe, but it's a strong hand to hold going into the finale nonetheless.
Technically five drivers are still mathematically in the running for the title, but two of them - Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon - will be ruled out the minute that Power participates in first practice at Fontana on Friday. That leaves only Simon Pagenaud as an outside bet to break the Penske hold on the 2014 championship, after the Frenchman was able to battle his way to a podium finish at Sonoma to keep him within 81 points of Power.
"This morning I never thought we would be third. I'm delighted and we're going into Fontana with a chance to the title so, as you know, that was something that was very important to me," Pagenaud said.
"Having the opportunity to go into the last race with a chance for the title is what you expect, what you want, what we dream of as kids," he added. "Being in that situation now is awesome. Obviously we all need a little bit of luck to make it happen at Fontana, but there's no pressure on us. We need to win and see where the others end up. We're going to have to be really aggressive there."
Realistically though, it's his own team mate that Power has to worry about now. Surprisingly, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion has also never won the series title - like Power, he's been the runner-up on three occasions in the past and desperately wants to go one place better this year.
"We are 50 [sic] points behind in the championship heading to the finale at Auto Club Speedway and with the double points there anything can happen," insisted Castroneves. "We are not giving up. We will keep on it and give everything we have next weekend to try and reach our goal. We are still in it and we know what we need to do now over the 500 miles."
Castroneves described getting taken out of contention on the very first lap as "really tough". He sustained front and back damage to his car following an incident in which Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Briscoe went off in turn 2 and Castroneves got tipped into a spin and then collected by the car of James Hinchcliffe.
"The start of the race was messy," Bourdais said afterwards. "Everybody went for it and braked real late. Cars got shuffled around and were going in every direction. I ended up sideways, hit Briscoe and lost the engine. I got re-fired, but the car was really banged up and difficult to drive.
"It wasn't the day we planned for, obviously," contributed Hinchcliffe. "On the first lap going into Turn 2, Scott [Dixon] just really didn't give me enough room. He didn't do anything intentional, but he pinched me right down to the curb.
"I tried to get out of his way; he had plenty of track to the left but decided to use all the track I was trying to use and ended up spinning us. At a track that's as track-position dependent as this one, that absolutely murdered our day, and he gets away scot free. It's kind of disappointing."
It's an incident that may have played a major role in deciding the outcome of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, but we won't know for sure until next weekend at Fontana - where, as Sonoma proved on Sunday, pretty much anything could still happen.
Sonoma race report
| Race results
| Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings