The last time Will Power tasted victory on the streets of Long Beach, it marked the final race of the Champ Car World Series and the series' merger with the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Power has tried--for four years now--to get back into Victory Lane and finally sealed the deal in the 38th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, an 85-lap contest on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn Long Beach circuit.
Power was chased by a determined Simon Pagenaud--his former teammate back in the Champ Car days--as he relied on a two-stop strategy to eke out a .8675-second victory over the Frenchman, who led the most laps, 26, in race marked by three caution periods.
James Hinchcliffe finished third after teammate and 2010 Long Beach winner Ryan Hunter-Reay received a 30-second penalty for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato on the final lap. RHR was classified sixth while Sato finished eighth.
With a grid turned topsy-turvy due to Chevrolet's insistence on changing all 11 of its engines, Power started 12th despite qualifying second. Using a two-stop strategy and working to conserve fuel even as he worked his way to the front Power led 15 laps--the final 15. He earned his 17th INDYCAR win and the first at this track for Team Penske since Helio Castroneves won in 2001.
"I think it came down to a good call in the beginning to pit and then, obviously we had to save very good fuel throughout the whole race. At the end," Power said, "I was very aware of Simon's strategy," as Pagenaud did a three-stop race running full rich throughout. "We saved enough fuel to be able to push for the last two laps so I felt we were pretty safe."
He had to deal with back-markers in the final laps--as did Pagenaud--tightening the gap from more than a couple of seconds to less than one. "This was a very sweet victory because I've been on pole here in 2009, '10 and '11 and it just frustrated me that every year something would happen and I couldn't win. It just just a good race, pushed hard all the time, no mistakes, great strategy, just a great team effort again," said the winner of the past two 2012 races.
Rookie Pagenaud's best INDYCAR finish and the best for Schmdt-Hamilton Motorsports came on a track where he's had plenty of success, having won twice in sports cars. "I love coming here. I thank my engineer and all the development work the team is doing. The fact that we're a one-car team is actually not a bad thing, because we're very focused on just my car and very focused on my feedback. Everything I'm asking, I get it."
Pagenaud did not run at all on Friday in the dismal weather and his car didn't unload really well, he said. "It's a little bit harder like it has been this weekend but the team makes good decisions, as you can see and I think it's all about the right decisions at the right time." Pagenaud was the sole Honda-powered car in the top seven at the close of the race.
Hinchcliffe, who started 16th had his hands full coming to the front of the field. "It was a bit of an eventful race and from my seat it was certainly exciting. We didn't have the greatest first stint but ultimately, it came down to my Andretti Autosport guys making the best calls on the pit stand. It's cool to have such a great team behind you, supporting you and making those right decisions, because that's what makes Indy car racing so cool.
"I feel bad for Ryan because we finished fourth on the track; I only got third because of Ryan. He was punching holes left, right and center and I was just following him through for a lot of the race, so a big thanks to him. Hopefully it's not the last time I get a trophy in this series," Hinch said. He also revealed that he's lost a bet with driver Wade Cunningham, having achieved a podium. "I guess in Brazil you're going to be seeing baby face Hinch show up and I'm not thrilled about that." He also said if he wins the Indianapolis 500, he'll shave his head!