CLICK: Full race 1 results
It had not been the best build-up to the first race of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit doubleheader at Belle Isle for Will Power, with Penske president Tim Cindric earlier admitting that the team was struggling to find pace in the #12 car this weekend as they qualified in a lowly 16th position.
A few hours later and the car - and driver - were transformed, thanks to tapping Power's team mate and polewinner Helio Castroneves for set-up tips and then by adopting a race strategy that gave them a fighting chance, thanks to a healthy amount of good fortune along the way.
Castroneves held the early lead of the race despite struggling to get off the grid for the formation laps, while fellow front row man James Hinchcliffe lost an early duel with Jack Hawksworth down into turn 1. There was an early yellow on lap 5 when Power made contact with Simon Pagenaud: the Australian was distracted by a simultaneous threat to the right from Marco Andretti and ended up pinching Pagenaud into the wall which left the #77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsport car in the turn 4 run-off with broken suspension.
A few of the cars toward the back of the field - Power among them - opted to pit under the caution, but the leaders stayed out and the race resumed on lap 8. However there was another early caution on lap 15 when Mike Conway understeered into the wall at turn 12 - meaning that both of the 2013 race winners were early retirements this time - and the leaders found it hard to pass up the opportunity to pit under yellow a second time.
The two drivers who stayed out were Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti, who duly resumed in the lead ahead of Power and the rest of the cars that had pitted on lap 6 that included Mikhail Aleshin, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball, while Castroneves found himself down to eighth just ahead of Hinchcliffe. Missing from the line-up for the restart on lap 20 was Hawksworth, whose left front brake rotor had shattered. He would later resume albeit four laps down, as was Takuma Sato who had suffered early mechanical problems but who now had one of the fastest cars on the track.
Rahal finally pitted on lap 25 and switched to the red-walled soft option tyres, but these proved very shortlived before Rahal was forced to come in again only ten laps later for a fresh set of the black prime tyres. That threatened to put a spanner in the works for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan #15, but many other drivers still had the options yet to run and it would balance out over the remainder of the race.
The pit stops cycling through had put Castroneves back out in front when a new caution materialised on lap 36 for Josef Newgarden getting into the tyre barrier and wall at turn 7. The clean-up proved longer than expected because of water that had spilled out of the tyres when they were hit, and that brought the fuel window to reach the finish tantalisingly close - several cars including Ryan Briscoe and Marco Andretti tried pitting under the yellow for fuel top-ups in case the rest of the race ended up with an excess of cautions to make an extreme fuel conservation strategy viable.
The leaders stayed off pit road under the caution only to come in shortly afterwards in accordance with their pre-arranged race strategies: Castroneves and Hinchcliffe came in on lap 46 and dropped to 15th and 16th respectively as a result, which ended up removing both from contention for the race win in the latter stages of the race.
Effectively the field was now split into three groups of differing strategies: Power led the race ahead of Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal, all of whom needed to pit shortly and had no intention of easing off their fuel use. From sixth on down was the second group headed by Marco Andretti and Justin Wilson who were going to try and make it home on fumes; and then there were the former leaders Castroneves and Hinchcliffe who led the lack of cars who could make it to the finish but who now lacked track position.
Power came in for his final stop on lap 53 with 18 laps remaining, and a fast stop saw him re-emerge just ahead of Andretti. Kanaan came in next time around and did likewise; that made them the potentially the favourites for the race win as the cars in front cycled through their own stops. Briscoe took the lead by holding out all the way to lap 62 before finally succumbing to the inevitable, and by that point he'd already been passed by Power who was now looking unstoppable. Rahal had also come back into play, slotting back into second place ahead of Kanaan.
The big question mark was whether the likes of Andretti and Wilson would be able to make it to the finish: they were helped by Mikhail Aleshin spinning out in turn 7 on lap 55 following a helping hand from Hinchcliffe which meant a few more laps run under yellow; Aleshin's hopes of a podium had already been dashed by an early drive-thru penalty, ironically for blocking a move by Takuma Sato who was four laps off the lead in any case.
The final ten laps saw Power on the ragged edge as he was forced to apply every bit of his talent to hold off Rahal to the chequered flag. Kanaan was well out of this battle and was five seconds off the pair as Power successfully clinched the win by just 0.3308s from Rahal.
"Just a great job by the team, putting me in a position to use our speed," said Power. "It's a massive win. It's a massive win for me, massive win for the team and especially for Roger and for Chevy. They've been trying to win here for a long time and we finally did it with a Honda trying to charge by."
"We've been fighting awfully hard to just finish where we have been finishing and so to finally get a result like this it means more than words," said Rahal, who had been suffering a frustrating season up to now in 2014.
Behind the podium trio, Justin Wilson pulled off a forceful move on Andretti to seal fourth place, but admitted that the fuel alarm light indicting only half a lap's worth of fuel remaining had come on with two laps still to run.
"That was a crazy race: we started 19th and saved fuel and managed to leapfrog up after we did an early pit stop," said Wilson. "We cycled from the back up to the front, and then to the back and then up to the front."
The drivers get to do all this over again on Sunday, with a qualifying session on Sunday morning ahead of the second 70-lap race in the afternoon meaning there's little time for sorely needed rest and recuperation.
"That was hard work, very hard work," admitted Power. "I'm very exhausted."
Full race 1 results